By Mark Young
Of all the World Cup qualifiers this week, Portugal-Sweden stands out as the most intriguing. No matter how many times FIFA expands the finals field, invariably a so-called big-name nation misses its quadrennial extravaganza.
The rogues’ gallery of World Cup qualification failure includes England in 1994, the Netherlands in 2002, plus Greece (the reigning European champions at the time), and African powers Cameroon and Nigeria in 2006.
Portugal could be next in line. A loss to Sweden on Saturday in Oporto, and Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. will be staring down the barrel of elimination infamy.
Injuries, a Euro 2008 hangover, and the uninspiring coaching regime change are all factors in Portugal’s sluggish start to its South Africa campaign. But don’t expect their Group 1 rivals to be sending “Get Well Soon” cards any time soon. This week Denmark, Hungary and Sweden have the opportunity to inflict severe damage to Portugal’s World Cup ambitions.
On tap for current Group 1 leaders Denmark and Hungary are eminently winnable double-headers. Denmark travels to Malta on Saturday, and hosts Albania on Wednesday, while Hungary faces off against the same twosome in reverse order: visiting Albania on Saturday before a home game with Malta on Wednesday.
Both the Danes and the Magyars are two points ahead of Portugal (and Sweden) entering Saturday’s games. Hardly insurmountable, but if the Portuguese lose in Oporto and the others take care of business, that two-point deficit expands to eight points.
In the event of such a stark scenario coming to fruition, would it be too early to write off Portugal? No, it would not. However, the World Cup math would begin to work against them. Down eight points from even a playoff spot, and having no games left with main rival Sweden and only a road game against Denmark (having already lost the home encounter), it would take all the considerable powers of the nation’s famed ocean explorers to navigate such choppy World Cup qualification waters. In other words, there would be little hope of a trip around the Cape of Good Hope next summer.
Newish head coach Carlos Queiroz, though, remains more than hopeful. He is adamant that his team will be in South Africa next year. His main reason for optimism, of course, is his not-so-secret weapon: reigning FIFA World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo. The under-fire head coach is counting on the dashing Manchester United superstar to turn the tide.
Yet despite possessing dazzling skills that spark greater panic in defenders’ eyes than a Portuguese Man o’ War swarm spotted on the horizon, Ronaldo rarely performs for Portugal at the level he does for the Red Devils. The Madeira maestro isn’t Garrincha or Diego Maradona just yet—he can’t win international games on his own (yet).
This was amply demonstrated in Portugal’s game with Albania last October. Ronaldo was omnipresent that night. When not taking every corner and free kick, he was attempting to take on the entire Albania team every time he got the ball. All he got for his melodramatic performance was a growing chorus of boos from his countrymen, and a nil-nil stalemate with the Albanians—two precious World Cup points tossed away. (A month later, things went from bad to worse. In a high-profile friendly in Brazil, Ronaldo disappeared into a funk as Portugal were demolished 6-2 with Kaka putting on a spectacular show.)
The beleaguered Queiroz will need his protégé to step up rather just step over on Saturday. But he needs big performances from the rest of a very talented Portuguese squad as well. Midfield general Deco has been dogged by injury this season, as has his Chelsea teammate Ricardo Carvalho, but they may both be available for the Sweden game. It’s unlikely either will play a full 90 minutes, but as the team’s elder statesmen they can inspire the likes of Nani, Pepe, Jose Bosingwa and Tiago to give it a go.
Swedish star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, alas, will not be giving it a go. He is suspended. Stricken by the loss of its attacking mastermind, Sweden will undoubtedly go into its “draw specialist” mode, being more than happy with a road point.
But if Sweden can pick off Portugal and get the three points, Portuguese heads will roll. Portugal fans will no doubt clamor to bring Big Phil Scolari out of his post-Chelsea doldrums. But by next week it may be too late for even his considerable passion and powers to spare Portugal from the ignominy of being the latest big-name no-show at the big show.
Mark C. Young is an Emmy Award-winning freelance writer/TV producer who has covered several World Cups. He also writes for the blog “No Mas.”