Next year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar is sure to be without either Italy or Portugal after the current and previous European champions were drawn into the same qualifying playoff bracket on Friday, meaning that at least one will fail to qualify for the tournament.
Italy first face North Macedonia at home in a playoff semi-final in March, with the winners to play away against either Portugal or Turkey for a spot at the World Cup.
Four-time champions Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, missing the tournament for the first time since 1958 after losing in the playoffs against Sweden.
Now, after winning Euro 2020 in July, they might have to beat Euro 2016 champions Portugal to avoid a second straight failure.
“It’s not a great draw and it could have gone better,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini said.
“Just like we wanted to avoid Portugal, they would have wanted to avoid Italy,” Mancini said.
Cristiano Ronaldo has led Portugal to every World Cup since 2006 and this might be his last attempt at winning international soccer’s biggest trophy.
He is to turn 37 before next year’s tournament starts.
Ronaldo helped Portugal get through the playoffs for the 2014 World Cup, scoring a hat-trick in a 3-2 win over Sweden that featured an epic duel between superstars, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic netting twice for Sweden.
“It’s not worth thinking about” Italy, Portugal coach Fernando Santos said. “It’s important that we concentrate on beating Turkey.”
Also in the 12-team draw, Scotland face Ukraine at home, with the winner to play Wales or Austria in the final of their bracket.
Russia host Poland for the right to face Sweden or the Czech Republic in their bracket final.
The six playoff semi-finals are single-leg games on March 24. The three finals are to be played five days later.
The three winners are to complete Europe’s entry of 13 nations in the 32-team lineup in Qatar.
FIFA is to make the tournament draw on April 1 in Doha.
Meanwhile, Qatar is to host the intercontinental playoff in June to decide the final two qualifiers for the tournament.
The intercontinental draw pairs the team from Asia against the team from South America, and a team from North American region CONCACAF against Oceania’s representative.
Those qualifying campaigns are still being played.
The winners of the two single-leg games on June 13 and 14 are to complete the 32-team World Cup lineup, with 13 nations — Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Qatar, Serbia, Spain and Switzerland — already qualified.
Additional reporting by staff writer
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