Two-legged playoffs to decide the final spots for the 2014 World Cup are being played this week and next. We've already seen Uruguay and Mexico more or less punch their tickets with mollywhoppings of, respectively, Jordan and New Zealand. Friday's European playoff matchups will undoubtedly be much more dramatic.
Iceland are playing a sneaky-stacked Croatia side who will attempt to prevent the Icelanders from becoming the smallest country ever to qualify for the World Cup. Romania will have to bypass Greece's ridiculous defense to make Brazil. France, who are finally starting to look like France again, are rewarded by having to travel to Ukraine tomorrow, which is not a fun place to play. And somehow, none of these games matter that much, because they'll all be going on at the same time as Portugal-Sweden.
Tomorrow's match in Lisbon is the one everyone will be watching, because for 90 minutes, two of the world's biggest stars, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimović, will be on the pitch at the same time, battling for World Cup qualification.
They probably won't be battling each other, of course. They're both forwards and will most likely be wreaking absolute hell on the other's back line. And really, there's a beauty in that as well. Tomorrow, we'll see the two best goalscorers in the world, each working in isolation, creating and (probably) scoring, while the other waits his turn.
Both Ronaldo and Ibrahimović will have plenty of chances to sway the tie in their nation's favor. Both men are doing whatever they want to whomever they want right now. Already this season, Ronaldo has scored 27 goals and seven assists in 20 matches across all competitions for his club, Real Madrid. For PSG, Ibrahimović has scored 15 goals and three assists in just 16 matches, and 10 goals in the last 5 alone. They're two of the best players in the world at the top of their game. And that's also why Portugal-Sweden will be as exciting as it is tragic.
Because one of these guys is going to the World Cup while the other watches from the couch. And most likely, the guy on the couch will be Zlatan Ibrahimović. And that sucks.
The giant Swede is the truth. One the pitch, he's one of the best, most dominant players of our generation, and possibly the single most colorful, enigmatic personality off of it. All Ibrahimović does is win, no matter what, no matter whom he plays for. He's the only reason Sweden still have a shot at a World Cup berth, because as a whole, his squad is pretty meh. He doesn't have a much help.
For years, Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have stood above all other players as the two best in the game, no arguments. But a year ago to the day, this happened. And since, Ibrahimović has bullied his way into the conversation. Now the three appear to stand alone from everyone else in the world's most popular game.
But dude's 32 years old. Even though he somehow maintains and improves every year, Zlatan is probably not an alien. He'll be 36 by the time the 2018 Russia World Cup rolls around. He might not be playing anymore. He might not be as effective anymore. He might not be effective enough to put Sweden on his back one last time. This could be the last chance we have of seeing Ibrahimović on the sport's biggest stage.
And there's our catch, because if Ibrahimović can will his nation to their first World Cup appearance since missing the 2010 tournament, that means that we won't be seeing the most electrifying player on the planet next summer. Though Ronaldo was unfortunate enough to play at the same time as Messi, in the same league, and will never stand apart from his Argentine rival, the Portuguese captain is just about perfect in every way. He's bigger, stronger, faster, quicker, more technically gifted, and ultimately better than just about everyone to ever kick a soccer ball. Whereas Messi is industrious and brutally, coldly efficient, Ronaldo is flamboyant on the ball. Though he seemingly plays with little joy, he's a showman. And on top of that, he's an underwear model. The world needs him in Brazil, just as it needs Zlatan.
And sadly, it will likely be the supporting cast that decides this playoff. Sweden doesn't have anyone else really who can share the load, and he'll likely be marked tightly and swarmed from the opening whistle. Ronaldo, however, is reportedly banged up, though he's expected to play tomorrow. If he's not at his best, he has help in players like Nani, Hélder Postiga, João Moutinho, Miguel Veloso, and Fabio Coentrão.
Neither of these teams has more than the slimmest of prayers of winning the World Cup. But the World Cup is also a showcase for the world's biggest stars. No matter what, only two of the top three players the sport has to offer will be playing, which is a tragedy. So before we mourn the loss of one, let's just enjoy this while we can.
Photo Credit: The Telegraph