Let’s face it: 2022 does not really feel like a World Cup year. Perhaps it is the fact that next November, when the FIFA World Cup will begin in Qatar, seems a little remote.
After all, it’s an unprecedented winter World Cup (for those of us living north of the equator). Or perhaps it’s the fact that the Euros, AFCON, and Copa America are still fresh in the memory, having been played a year later than planned.
Regardless, World Cup fever will come around sooner rather than later, and it might just start after we get the final rounds of qualification out of the way at the end of March. Normally that business is all sorted out in the autumn preceding a World Cup year, but all the postponements and changes to the calendar over the last couple of years means there are still 17 places up for grabs, and most of them will be finalized this month.
March Sees the Conclusion of Most World Cup Qualifiers
All confederations have exciting conclusions to their qualifying campaigns this month, but the eye is inevitably drawn to some of the UEFA fixtures, notably those involving Portugal and Italy. To explain, there are 12 UEFA teams remaining in the Playoffs, who will be playing six Semi-Finals and three Finals to determine the last three places at the World Cup.
Each team will know who they will potentially play in each Final (although there is some doubt due to Russia’s expulsion from FIFA-organised competitions), so we know that we are definitely going to see one of Portugal and Italy miss out on the World Cup. The Italians play North Macedonia, and Portugal will play Turkey on 24th March. It’s not a forgone conclusion that they will meet in the Final on 29th March, but the betting suggests it’s more than likely.
So, we are in a situation where the World Cup will be played without the current European champions or the team that they succeeded. It is a strange scenario, but it makes for a fascinating tie on 29th March, assuming they both make it past their opponents. Indeed, it will feel more like a true cup final than a playoff, and the stakes are incredibly high. It’s worth noting that UEFA’s system has developed in such a way that Portugal (or Turkey) will play the Final as the home team, with Estadio do Drago in Porto lined up to host should Portugal win.
Could It Be the End for Ronaldo?
The (potential) matchup between Portugal and Italy will obviously have plenty of subplots. For example, could you envisage Cristiano Ronaldo announcing his international retirement if Portugal do not make it to the World Cup? The next major tournament after Qatar 2022 is Euro 24, and that seems a long way off for a 37-year-old. But with Ronaldo, who knows? At times it seems like he can go on forever.
Obviously, two big European footballing nations have plenty of previous. Portugal had a rotten 10-game losing streak against Italy running from 1980 to 2008, but the Portuguese have been on top since then, beating Italy twice and drawing once in the last three games. Somewhat surprisingly, they have never come up against each other at a major tournament down the years. But we are going to have wait a while longer before we see that.
This one is certainly difficult to call. But as we said, it will feel like a cup final if the pair meet and decide their World Cup fate in a one-off game on 29th March. We shouldn’t forget that Turkey and North Macedonia are ready to play spoiler.
But if the two European heavyweights meet in the Final, it could really kick off World Cup fever in 2022.
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