The World Cup playoffs bring a potent mix of emotions along with them when they kick off this week.
For some teams, this is the realisation of all their dreams. Two matches away from reaching a World Cup is huge for the likes of Jordan, Iceland, and Portugal.
Ok, well spotted. Not Portugal. The Iberians are among those for whom the playoffs look more like a crisis than an opportunity.
Consistently good at major tournaments, and boasting one of the two best players in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal is one of those countries who should be looking to win the competition outright, not scrape into it or – the unthinkable – not qualify.
And that could happen, because the team they have to face is Sweden, with their own talisman and possibly the third-best player in the world, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
There are going to be some sleep-deprived players taking the field in their national colours this week.
Mexico against New Zealand and Jordan v Uruguay on Wednesday are followed on Friday by Portugal hosting the Swedes, France in Ukraine, Greece at home to Romania and Iceland against Croatia.
Saturday sees Nigeria play Ethiopia and Senegal take on Ivory Coast in the second leg of the African playoffs, followed by Cameroon against Tunisia. They are rounded up by Ghana’s almost certain victory over Egypt next week, when Algeria also play Burkina Faso.
Mexico need a lift
First up, Mexico City, as New Zealand visit the Azteca Stadium where the World Cup was lifted by Argentina in 1986.
The confidence that came with Mexico’s 2011 Gold Cup win over the United States and their young players’ Olympic triumph last year has evaporated since, with a poor qualifying campaign that has seen them risk being only the fourth Mexican team not to qualify for the finals (the others were in 1934, 1974 and 1982).
“We keep telling (the players) what we’re playing for, the determination we need, the will to bring back the ticket so Mexico can go to the World Cup,” Miguel Herrera, Mexico’s fourth coach of this qualifying campaign, said at the weekend.
|Herrera is trying to salvage Mexico’s qualifying campaign after taking over from Victor Manuel Vucetich this year [AFP]|
“On Wednesday we’ll be going all-out to get a good advantage. It’s important not to concede a goal but also to get a lead.”
New Zealand have taken Australia’s old position as Oceania’s regular playoff contender since the Socceroos’ dominance led them to join the Asian ranks, and while they will still be underdogs they have good World Cup pedigree from last time out, finishing unbeaten albeit winless against Slovakia, Paraguay and then-champions Italy.
The flight from Auckland might take it out of them, but the All Whites could be feeling more buoyant than El Tricolor by kickoff.
In the Middle East, Jordan carry the flag for Gulf teams but have a very difficult task against two-time world champions Uruguay, who finished fourth at South Africa 2010.
The Jordanians were thrashed 6-0 by Japan and 4-0 by Australia in Asian qualifying but then came back to beat both those teams in the return, before reaching this stage with a penalty-shootout win over Uzbekistan.
Their challenge against the strike duo of Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani and Liverpool’s Luis Suarez is made even harder by a string of injuries – but these two matches still represent a chance of reaching Brazil for the team ranked 70th in the world.
“Nothing is impossible in football, and we have the right to dream,” Jordan midfielder Baha Suleiman told FIFA.com.
The playoff picture in Europe – and particularly the questions of whether it will be Ronaldo or Ibrahimovic going to Rio, and whether France can shake off recent troubles to gain ascendency over Ukraine – will be clearer by the time Africa comes around.
For Ghana, the big question is not over whether they will qualify.
A 6-1 win over Egypt in the first leg is unlikely to be reversed, but there remain fears over security after Al Ahly fans fought police in Cairo on the night of their African Champions League win over Orlando Pirates, at the Arab Contractors Stadium on Sunday.
Ghana are concerned over possible protests against Egypt’s military leadership, who own the 30 June Stadium where the match will take place.
FIFA said on Monday they had received governmental guarantees over security at the game, which will be the first international in Cairo since the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarek in 2011.