The irony of World Cup qualifying rounds has brought Portugal and Sweden face-to-face for two play-off games on November 15 and 19. Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are football’s two superstars, and football fans, around the world, will be disappointed that only one of them will be seen playing in Brazil World Cup next year.
On Monday October 21, 2013, FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich was a beehive of activities. A random draw was being held to decide play-off games, from which four European teams could finally go to Brazil for next year’s World Cup and join other 9 already qualified European countries. While no one questions FIFA procedures, the luck factor leaves a sour taste in the mouth. The proceedings lasted for about an hour, of which only the last few minutes were meaningful. FIFA bestowed the honour of conducting the draw on retired Swiss footballer and FC Basel legend Alexander Frie. A large table on the podium had three glass Pots. Two were labeled as Pot 1 and Pot 2, while the third Pot was empty and unlabeled. Each labeled Pots contained four yellow toy balls, in whose hollow spaces, paper strips were hidden, with names of 8 European nations. Frie randomly drew one ball each from Pot 1 and Pot 2 and put them into the empty Pot. The third Pot was stirred by Gordon Savic, FIFA Head of World Cup Qualifiers and he picked one ball and unscrewed it from the middle. The paper slip showed Portugal. Next when Frie repeated the procedure and paper clip revealed Sweden, there were sighs followed by an eerie silence. It meant that out of Portugal and Sweden, only one country can go to Brazil. Frie continued until he finished. The line-up for two-legged play-offs games emerged with great clarity. Besides Portugal vs. Sweden, other play-off games will be Ukraine vs. France, Greece vs. Romania and Iceland vs. Croatia.
While coaches of Portugal and Sweden tried to downplay the importance of Ronaldo and Ibra on grounds that games are played between two teams and not between individuals, the fans knew what they would be missing. But football is the loser because of the current system of qualifications. How else can someone describe four strongest European teams in the same group? Elimination of last world cup’s semifinalist, at qualifying stage itself, is like an official match-fixing. The luck-based system strangely contrives to enter less competent national teams going into the World Cup finals. Last week football fans saw England qualifying by defeating Poland. If England had lost, Ukraine would have automatically qualified. But now Ukraine has to play France and win. World Cup fans obviously want world’s best 32 teams playing, and when that happens, most of the current football stars are seen exhibiting their super-talents in various games.
Portugal and Sweden are classy teams, although Portugal is a shade better today, and not merely because of the brilliant Cristiano Ronaldo. There are several Portuguese footballers with great skills. The two nations have played each other 15 times and Sweden has a 6-3 win record but Sweden has not beaten Portugal since 1984. Everyone is familiar with the exuberance of Ronaldo, who has developed into a top-class footballer. There is no dearth of earnings and endorsements for Ronaldo. Same thing can be said about Ibrahimovic. In European clubs, Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic have both made great strides, enriching the game of football.
Ibrahimovic is as popular as Ronaldo in Europe. He was signed by Internazionale for 4-years and scored 15 goals in the first season to help Internazionale record its first league triumph in 17 years. In 2008-2009, Ibra scored the “Goal of the Year” against Bologna from his heels, without moving an inch. Throughout the season, he maintained top form with brilliant moves and outstanding passes. He later moved to FC Barcelona on a transfer agreement. On his debut in August 2009, he assisted Messi in scoring a goal and later helped Barcelona win the 2009 UEFA Super Cup. He kept netting goals regularly and set a record, as the only player ever, to score in his first four league matches. Ibra finished 2010 season with 16 league goals to help Barcelona top La Liga with 99 points in 38 matches. Ibra was loaned to Inter Milan in 2010-2011, where his performance was superb. He scored 13 goals and 8 assists in 21 games. The press and media compared Ibra with Marco van Basten and even Basten agreed. Ibra continued his goal-scoring with a hat-trick in a 4–0 win against Palermo and eclipsed his earlier record of 25 goals by scoring 28 goals in 32 outings. Since July 2012, Ibra is a shining star for Paris Saint-Germain.
But Monday’s draw makes only one thing certain. Fans can either see Ronaldo or Ibrahimovic in the Brazil World Cup. There are millions around the world, who would have liked to see both their heroes, showcasing their skills in the great event. But now they have to make do with just one of them.