Italy and Portugal were drawn into the same category of World Cup qualifiers on Friday, ensuring that the defending European champion (Italy) or one of the biggest football stars (Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal) will be missing from this year’s tournament.
Italy will face North Macedonia in the semi-final at home in March, and the winner will travel to play with the winner of the other semi-finals of the group – either Portugal or Turkey – for one of the last three European places in the World Cup. The Portugal-Turkey winner would host that football match five days later.
The prospect of such a high-stakes clash also increased the chances that Italy would miss out on the World Cup for the second consecutive round. Italy lost the playoffs to Russia in 2018 for a place at the last World Cup – a defeat which one newspaper declared a “national shame”. “It certainly could have been a little better,” Italian coach Roberto Mancini told Italian television station RAI2 after a draw in Friday’s playoffs. “Because we gladly avoided them,” he said, “they probably avoid us too.”
🏠 See which semi-final winners will have a home draw in the final ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/EYuyXzKmwn
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The potential clash was the most interesting of the many high-stakes matches for the last three places in Europe in Qatar and was the first test of a new qualification format. In the past, the European playoffs have taken the form of a two-legged, one-on-one confrontation.
Instead, this year, the 12 teams – 10 of whom finished second in their qualifying groups – were split into three four-team routes, each with its own semi-final and final. Only the winning team from each route qualifies for the World Cup.
In the other brackets, Scotland will face Ukraine, with the winner facing either Wales or Austria, and Russia will host Poland for the right to face Sweden or the Czech Republic. Wales, who played their only World Cup in 1958, are included in the same category as Scotland, which has not qualified since 1998. Ten European teams – led by Germany, France, Belgium and England – have already qualified, as have two South American favourites, Brazil and Argentina.