Italy and Portugal were drawn into the same World Cup qualifying bracket on Friday, ensuring that either the reigning European champion (Italy) or one of soccer’s biggest stars (Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo) will be absent from next year’s tournament in Qatar.
Italy will face North Macedonia at home in a semifinal in March, and the winner will travel to play the winner of the bracket’s other semifinal — either Portugal or Turkey — for one of the last three European places in the World Cup. The Portugal-Turkey winner would host that game five days later.
The potential for such a high-stakes showdown also raised the possibility that Italy would miss the World Cup for the second cycle in a row. Italy lost a playoff for a place in the last World Cup, in Russia in 2018 — a defeat that one newspaper declared a “national shame.”
“It could have been a little better, for sure,” Italy Coach Roberto Mancini told the Italian broadcaster RAI2 after Friday’s playoff draw. “As we would have gladly avoided them,” he added, “probably they too would have avoided us.”
The possible showdown was the most intriguing of several high-stakes matchups for Europe’s last three spots in Qatar, and the first test of a new qualifying format. In the past, the European playoffs have taken the form of two-legged, head-to-head matchups.
Instead, this year, the 12 teams — 10 of which finished as runners-up in their qualifying groups — were split into three four-team paths, each with its own semifinals and final. Only the winning team from each path qualifies for the World Cup.
In the other brackets, Scotland will face Ukraine, with the winner meeting Wales or Austria, and Russia will host Poland for the right to face Sweden or the Czech Republic.
Wales, which made its only World Cup appearance in 1958, was drawn into the same bracket as Scotland, which has not qualified since 1998.
Ten European teams — led by Germany, France, Belgium and England — have already qualified, as have the two South American favorites, Brazil and Argentina.
Friday’s draw also set up second-chance routes to the World Cup for countries from four other regional confederations. In those games, the fourth-place team from Concacaf, the region comprising North and Central America and the Caribbean, would play the Oceania champion, and the fifth-place team from South America would play the fifth-place team from Asia.
Those games will be played as single-leg matches in Qatar next June 13 and 14 — more than two months after the World Cup draw sorts the 32-team field on April 1.