Cristiano Ronaldo has been one of the most pivotal figures of modern football alongside the Argentine wizard Lionel Messi.
In the last five years, the doubt whether both could win a major international trophy has been put to bed, but Qatar 2022 poses a a different question.
Argentina has qualified for the world cup alongside Brazil from Latin America, but Portugal, the Champion of Europe in 2016 and winner of the maiden UEFA Nations League three years later, has been forced into playoffs, with a nebulous future about its World Cup ambitions in 2022.
Portugal was beaten by Serbia, a team ranked 19 places below it and held to a draw by a team not even in the top 50 of FIFA World Rankings – the Republic of Ireland in the qualifiers.
Ronaldo played in both matches, with no goals or assists in either of them.
Though the 37-year-old broke the record of the most international goals scored by a male football player during the qualifiers, he failed to click when it mattered the most — the definition of a clutch player — a sobriquet the Manchester United man has earned through his scoring antiques over two decades.
Starting in Group A for the UEFA World Cup qualification, Portugal was the favourite before the qualifiers began. Eight games later, it is Serbia that finds itself in the World Cup with 20 points, while Portugal’s hopes of a World Cup spot hang by a thread with 17 points.
This may well be the last world cup for Ronaldo, who has been the most significant player for his country in the modern era (115 goals, 40 assists).
Talking to beIN Sports in 2016, he had said, “I expect Qatar could be my final World Cup. I often go on holidays there, to Qatar as well as Dubai. I am happy because for sure it will be the last international tournament.”
When his team takes on Turkey on Thursday, there will be more than just the determination to win in mind. There will also be desperation to have a grand swansong, a final showdown of the two greatest pliers of the trade in the tournament, together.
But for that, he will need to focus on the game at hand as well as getting ready for the potential opponent waiting for it on the other side of the draw — the 2020 European Champion, Italy.
After all, the upsets are the reason Portugal finds itself in troubled waters.
Italy, on the other hand, has been here before, fighting tooth and nail for qualification and then failing to make it to the 2018 FIFA World Cup, first time in 52 years.
It has been at the receiving end of egregious and furious fanatics, with the media calling it “National Disgrace” (Il Messaggero), “The End” and the “sporting equivalent of the sinking of the Titanic” (Gazzetta dello Sport).
The team has been able to put those memories behind, enjoying the longest unbeaten streak in international football (37 games) and winning the European Championship to heal that cancer, which now has chances of reverting, spreading everywhere and placing hopes of fans in peril.
Italy will be playing North Macedonia — a team that made its maiden appearance at the World Cup four years ago — and the winner here will play the winner of the match between Portugal and Turkey. Both fixtures will be played at the same time.
The two teams have met eight times in competitive fixtures and Portugal has come out victorious just twice, while Italy has won five times. However, Italy has not beaten Portugal since a 3-1 win in a friendly on February 6, 2008.
For Portugal, the worrying bit remains the absence of its most prominent player at the back, Pepe. The 39-year-old centre-back will miss the qualifier against Turkey, which will set the stage for the eliminator.
For Italy and Portugal, what the fate possibly has in store is of one passing through the gates of hell while the other getting tickets to Qatar. However, a thin chance of a major upset remains with both losing to North Macedonia and Turkey respectively and not making it to the eliminator.
Liverpool’s legendary manager Bill Shankly had once replied to the question whether Football is more than Life and Death as “Well, it is much more than that”
When this round of play-offs for Qatar 2022 begins on Thursday, the results, the eliminations and the landslide of emotions will be a testimony of exactly that.
Goalkeepers: Alessio Cragno (Cagliari), Gianluigi Donnarumma (Paris St Germain), Pierluigi Gollini (Tottenham), Salvatore Sirigu (Genoa).
Defenders: Francesco Acerbi (Lazio), Alessandro Bastoni (Inter), Cristiano Biraghi (Fiorentina), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Giovanni Di Lorenzo (Napoli), Emerson Palmieri (Lyon), Alessandro Florenzi (Milan), Luiz Felipe (Lazio), Gianluca Mancini (Roma).
Midfielders: Nicolo Barella (Inter), Bryan Cristante (Roma), Jorginho (Chelsea), Manuel Locatelli (Juventus), Lorenzo Pellegrini (Roma), Matteo Pessina (Atalanta), Stefano Sensi (Sampdoria), Sandro Tonali (Milan), Marco Verratti (Paris St Germain).
Forwards: Andrea Belotti (Torino), Domenico Berardi (Sassuolo), Ciro Immobile (Lazio), Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli), Joao Pedro (Cagliari), Matteo Politano (Napoli), Giacomo Raspadori (Sassuolo), Gianluca Scamacca (Sassuolo) Mattia Zaccagni (Lazio), Nicolo Zaniolo (Roma).
Goalkeepers: Rui Patricio (Roma), Anthony Lopes (Lyon), Diogo Costa (Porto).
Defenders: Cedric Soares (Arsenal), Diogo Dalot (Manchester United), Joao Cancelo (Manchester City), Goncalo Inacio (Sporting Lisbon), Jose Fonte (Lille), Tiago Djalo (Lille), Nuno Mendes (Paris St Germain), Raphael Guerreiro (Borussia Dortmund).
Midfielders: Danilo (Paris Saint Germain), Rúben Neves (Wolves), William Carvalho (Betis), Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United), Joao Moutinho (Wolves), Matheus Nunes (Sporting Lisboa), Otavio (Porto), Bernardo Silva (Manchester City).
Forwards: Andre Silva (Leipzig), Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United), Diogo Jota (Liverpool), Goncalo Guedes (Valencia), Joao Felix (Atletico Madrid), Rafael Leao (Milan).