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World Cup Qualifying Playoff Draw: Only Room for One of Italy, Portugal in Qatar

UEFA's World Cup qualifying playoff draw yielded a bombshell, while Concacaf has a best-case scenario route in the intercontinental playoff.

FIFA conducted a pair of World Cup qualifying playoff draws on Friday that dealt a brutal hand to two European powers while offering the U.S. men’s national team a potential reprieve if it stumbles in Concacaf’s Octagonal.

Friday’s draws created a pathway for five nations to reach next year’s 32-team World Cup in Qatar—three from Europe and two from the rest of the world. Among the European countries vying for one of those spots are the past two continental champions: Italy and Portugal.

Both are ranked in FIFA’s top 10 and both enjoy vast popularity and pedigree. But both finished a surprising second in their UEFA qualifying groups, and on Friday they were placed in the same playoff bracket. Let there be no claims that these proceedings are fixed, because the result is a worst-case scenario for many. It confirms that either four-time world champion Italy will be absent from a second straight World Cup, or Portuguese icon Cristiano Ronaldo will miss out on what likely would’ve been his final World Cup.

“It’s a very difficult draw for us,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini said with a laugh on FIFA’s broadcast.

The 12 European entrants were split into three single-elimination, four-team brackets, with the semifinal hosts decided by ranking and the final host determined via an additional draw. Matches will be in late March. Italy will entertain unheralded North Macedonia in one Path C semifinal while Portugal hosts Turkey in the other. The Portugal-Turkey winner will stage the one-off final, which will send the winner to Qatar.

“If we win, we go to play away the final in Turkey or Portugal. They’re very strong,” said Mancini, who managed the revitalized Azzurri to the European Championship crown this summer.

Scotland, Ukraine, Wales and Austria comprise Path A, while Russia, Poland, Sweden and Czech Republic comprise Path B. The Path A, B and C survivors will fill out UEFA’s 13-team contingent in Qatar. European sides have won the past four World Cups.

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FIFA on Friday also arranged the pairings for the intercontinental playoffs, which gives nations just outside the automatic qualification places in Concacaf, South America and Asia—plus a team from Oceania—a chance to reach the World Cup. Traditionally these playoffs been contested as home-and-home series that required significant travel but this year, thanks to the pandemic and a compressed schedule, they’ll be staged as one-off matches next June 13-14 in Qatar.

Concacaf’s entrant, which could be the U.S., got a break by being drawn to face the Oceania representative. A South American side will meet a team from Asia in the other playoff. The Concacaf team will be the fourth-place finisher in the ongoing Octagonal, the 14-game, double round-robin that’ll send three teams straight to Qatar. Panama (4-2-2) currently sits fourth, but Los Canaleros are level on points with Mexico and just one behind the Americans (4-1-3). The Octagonal will continue in late January and early February, when the U.S. hosts El Salvador and Honduras and visits first-place Canada.

Oceania still hasn’t scheduled its World Cup qualifying competition, which usually comprises 11 teams from FIFA’s smallest confederation. Travel restrictions and other issues related to the pandemic have had a significant impact on soccer in the region, where the most recent continental championship and the past two club championship tournaments have already been canceled. In September, the Oceania Football Confederation said it was considering staging a qualifying tournament next March in Qatar.

The U.S. has never competed in an intercontinental playoff but if it slips and winds up there next June, it will fancy its chances against what will almost certainly be New Zealand (rather than the likes of Uruguay or Japan). The All Whites are ranked 110th in the world (that’s comparable to Trinidad & Tobago and Guatemala in Concacaf). Four years ago New Zealand lost to Peru in the playoff and in 2013 they were routed by Mexico, 9–3, on aggregate.

FIFA said Friday that it was staging the two playoff games in Qatar, “with the aim of continuing to test operations ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2022.” It said the matches will take place “at one of the tournament venues featuring the country’s innovative cooling system.” The average June temperature in Doha is around 97 degrees.

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