World Cup playoffs: Italy or Portugal will miss Qatar

FIFA held two World Cup qualifying draws on Friday that brought a brutal hand to two European powers while offering the United States men’s national team a potential reprieve if they stumble in the Octagonal of Concacaf.

Friday’s draws paved the way for five nations to reach the 32-team World Cup next year in Qatar, three from Europe and two from the rest of the world. Among the European countries vying for one of these places are the last two continental champions: Italy and Portugal.

Both are ranked in the FIFA top 10 and both enjoy great popularity and pedigree. But both finished in a surprising second place in their UEFA qualifying groups, and on Friday they were placed in the same playoff bracket. Do not pretend that these procedures are fixed, because the result is the worst case for many. This confirms that either quadruple world champion Italy will be missing from a second consecutive World Cup or Portugal icon Cristiano Ronaldo will miss what would likely have been his last World Cup.

“It’s a very difficult draw for us,” Italy manager Roberto Mancini said with a laugh on the FIFA broadcast.

The 12 European participants were divided into three four-team knockout groups, with the hosts of the semi-finals determined by ranking and the final host determined by an additional draw. The matches will take place at the end of March. Italy will face unannounced North Macedonia in one lane C semi-final while Portugal host Turkey in the other. The Portugal-Turkey winner will organize the single final, which will send the winner to Qatar.

“If we win, we will go to the final in Turkey or Portugal. They are very strong, ”said Mancini, who led the revitalized Azzurri to the European Championship crown this summer.

Scotland, Ukraine, Wales and Austria form lane A, while Russia, Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic form lane B. Survivors of lanes A, B and C will complete the contingent of 13 UEFA teams in Qatar. European teams have won the last four World Cups.

FIFA also hosted the matchups for the intercontinental qualifiers on Friday, giving nations just outside the automatic qualifying spots at Concacaf, South America and Asia, as well as a team from Oceania, a chance. to reach the World Cup. Traditionally, these playoffs were played as a home playoff that required significant travel, but this year, thanks to the pandemic and a compressed schedule, they will be organized in one-off matches from June 13 to 14 in Qatar.

The Concacaf participant, who could be the United States, got a break by being drawn against the representative of Oceania. A South American team will meet an Asian team in the other playoff. The Concacaf squad will be fourth in the ongoing Octogonal, the 14-game double-rounder that will send three teams straight to Qatar. Panama (4-2-2) is currently fourth, but Los Canaleros are tied on points with Mexico and just one behind the Americans (4-1-3). The Octagonal will continue in late January and early February, when the United States will welcome El Salvador and Honduras and visit Canada, the first country.

Oceania has yet to schedule its qualifying competition for the World Cup, which typically features 11 teams from the smaller FIFA confederation. Travel restrictions and other pandemic-related issues have had a significant impact on football in the region, where the last Continental Championship and the last two Club Championship tournaments have already been called off. In September, the Oceania Football Confederation said it was considering hosting a qualifying tournament next March in Qatar.

The United States has never been in an intercontinental playoff, but if they slip up and end up there next June, they’ll be keen on their chances against what will almost certainly be New Zealand (rather than the Uruguay or Japan). The All Whites are ranked 110th in the world (comparable to Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala in Concacaf). Four years ago New Zealand lost to Peru in the playoffs and in 2013 they were routed by Mexico, 9-3, on aggregate.

FIFA said on Friday it was hosting both qualifying matches in Qatar, “with the aim of continuing to test operations ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.” He said the matches would take place “at one of the tournament venues with the country’s innovative cooling system.” The average temperature in June in Doha is around 97 degrees.

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