FIFA grand poobah Sepp Blatter may want to do away with them — for no apparent or stated reason other than being “a hard way to lose” — but until he does, we have the spectacle of World Cup qualifying playoffs in the UEFA region to look forward to. In Friday’s first legs and next Tuesday’s return affairs, eight European sides will fight to their footballing death for some of the last spots at the World Cup in Brazil next summer.
The endless influx of money into soccer has diluted the meaningfulness of competition to a large extent. Long group stages and qualifying mechanisms and elaborate tournament brackets have drastically reduced the number of truly important games. But these are just that. There’s no second-chance circuit this time around. Meaning that half of Sweden and Portugal; France and Ukraine; Iceland and Croatia; and Greece and Romania will not make it, plain and simple.
That means that either Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo will not make it to the World Cup. Every edition of the world’s biggest sporting event has been without a true soccer superstar — either because his country underperformed in qualifying or because he was born in the wrong country altogether and never really had a chance. Next year, that will be the swaggering, flamboyant, eccentric and in-form Ronaldo or the swaggering, flamboyant, eccentric and in-form Zlatan. Whichever one, the tournament will be poorer for it.
Zlatan, for his part, says these games aren’t about the individuals. “I see two different players, two players who do things fantastically well and represent their countries in the best possible way,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “One shouldn’t focus on just two players — it’s Sweden against Portugal and I think the collectives are the most important.”
Among those collectives, Sweden won’t put the fear of the soccer gods into any opponents down in Brazil come June. Portugal, on the other hand, is very much a heavyweight of the sport. Since 2000, the Portuguese have made it to the final four of three European championships and the 2006 World Cup. They will be serious contenders, should they qualify. And if they don’t, their absence will be fairly shocking.
The same can be said of France, which has gotten itself caught in a dastardly see-saw of World Cup results. The French didn’t qualify in 1994, won the whole thing at home in ’98, were knocked out in the group stage in ’02, reached the final in ’06 and went home after just three games again in ’10 — where they owed their spot to a Thierry Henry handball in the playoffs with Ireland. Draw your own conclusions as to where they ought to place in 2014, if they qualify. And that remains a big if.
For France might have one of the deepest sides in the world — according to Bloomberg Sports data, only Spanish players have logged more minutes in Europe’s five biggest leagues this year — but it also has a deeply-ingrained self-destructive streak. Les Bleus, as you’ll recall, torpedoed their own campaign in South Africa by going on strike and destroying morale, cohesion and their chances.
They, too, face a side that has much less of a track record and was long a one-man team. The trouble is, that one man, Andriy Shevchenko, retired after Ukraine’s early elimination from Euro 2012 in its home country. And a year ago, he refused to become its head coach. Ukraine, then, is left with an old squad short on individual talent and has just one player, captain and holding midfielder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk of Zenit St. Petersburg, who plies his trade abroad. Still, they are a stodgy side with a wealth of experience at this stage, having fallen in the playoffs in their ’98, ’02 and ’10 campaigns.
Iceland is still sore about losing AZ Alkmaar — and Alabama-born — striker Aron Johannsson to the United States. But it might nevertheless qualify for the first time, and as the smallest nation ever at just 320,000 citizens. Luckily, that tiny gene pool still managed to produce two other hugely promising strikers in Ajax Amsterdam’s Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Heerenveen’s Alfred Finnbogason — yes, all three incidentally play in the Netherlands. Enmeshed with a spate of other talented young players, Iceland has but Croatia to overcome to reach its first major tournament.
Croatia is mired in crisis. By losing three of their last four World Cup qualifiers, and tying the other, the Croatians ceded their group to a resurgent Belgium. So Igor Stimac was fired and Niko Kovac, who had been a manager for only 10 months, since taking over the under-21 side, was installed. He has two world class players in orchestrator Luka Modric and striker Mario Mandzukic at his disposal but his players are otherwise unremarkable.
These are issues that also afflict Greece and Romania, who make up the final pairing. Greece came out of nowhere to win Euro 2004 and still relies on some of the same players as it did then, like midfielders Giorgios Karagounis and Kostas Katsouranis. In defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos, midfielder Sotiris Ninis and forward Giorgios Samaras, they have some solid younger players, but the Greeks generally lack the talent to compete internationally.
Luckily for them, however, so does Romania. They know it, too. “We don’t have players of high quality, but they are very driven, skillful and, most of all, they have come together to form a strong group,” manager Victor Piturca told the press. Not much of an endorsement, but refreshingly realistic.
The Romanians had a strong international run during the ‘90s, when the consistently reached knockout stages, but haven’t been to a World Cup since 1998 and, had they been drawn with a half-decent opponent, probably would be sitting out another one in 2014. But they didn’t, and so maybe they won’t.