Can you imagine a World Cup without Cristiano Ronaldo?
Portugal simply cannot afford to consider – and will not consider- that possibility.
“Confidence in our national team and respect for Sweden reflect our current thinking. Even though Ibrahimovic is a top player, we have two very strong central defenders that can stop him.” says Portugal supporter Nuno Moura.
The Portuguese are not psychologically prepared to lose the two-legged playoff on Friday and Tuesday. If they do lose, the whole country will be in deep mourning.
Besides Ronaldo, Portugal has players like Nani, João Moutinho, Pepe and Coentrão...Sweden don't have many players at that level.
Here in Lisbon it is possible to taste fear in the air, knowing how much damage Zlatan Ibrahimovic can do – especially after experiencing it last month when Paris Saint-Germain played Benfica – but they are convinced Portugal has better players and will qualify.
“I believe Portugal is favourite. Obviously, everybody is turning it into a Ronaldo vs Ibrahimovic thing, but I think that the Portuguese team is better, more experienced and has more individual talent,” Andre Viana, editor of Portuguese sports paper O Jogo, told Al Jazeera.
But today’s match is not only about qualifying for Brazil 2014, it is also about retaining dignity.
“Being in the World Cup 2014 is extremely important for the future of Portuguese football,” says Rui Malheiro, European football analyst.
Yes, the Iberians are not 100 percent proud of their national team’s performance and today are risking their life against Ibrahimovic’s Sweden, but they still have ‘golden major’ Cristiano.
Their ‘comandante CR7’ graced the front page of Portuguese newspaper A Bola yesterday, with his warrior face painted in gold framed by the Portugal national flag alongside the headline, ‘Portugal has the best of the world and the World Cup is waiting for him. You have to be made of gold Ronaldo’.
These days Portuguese media have been constantly portraying this combatant image of him as the homeland’s saviour, with comments such as: he ‘will lead the patrol to the trench’ today at the Luz stadium.
Addicted to Ronaldo
Although the Iberians recognise their Cristiano-dependence, they argue that Sweden has less talented players and their dependence on Zlatan is way bigger.
In his latest analysis piece, Nuno Travassos, journalist of Maisfutebol, defines Sweden as a ‘block’ waiting for ‘Ibracadabra’. Travassos believes the Swedish rely so much on ‘Ibra’ and expect him to do magic tricks on the field, whereas Portugal has a more balanced team and do not need any magic.
|Zlatan Ibrahimovic is shouldering the burden of inspiring Sweden as they try to reach the World Cup [AP]
“Besides Ronaldo, Portugal has players like Nani, João Moutinho, Pepe and Coentrão, for example, and Sweden don’t have many players at that level,” Nuno told Al Jazeera.
Despite not performing as expected, Portugal are still the favourites to qualify. Their defense and midfield are stronger and more experienced and Cristiano could take advantage of the gaps left in the defense of Erik Hamren’s team.
Let’s not forget that Sweden have not beaten Portugal since 1984, although now that they have a player of Ibrahimovic’s calibre anything can happen.
But ‘Ibra’ will not play alone and will need something more than his magic tricks to defeat Portugal. He will need strong team work.
Both players are in the best moment of their careers and have the power to dominate and overwhelm defenders, but if Portugal’s midfield works properly, Cristiano should lead the game.
Beyond all the forecasts, there is no doubt that this is the most exciting two-round combat of the playoffs, where two top-class strikers, whether ‘magicians’ or ‘golden warriors’, will play their best football and make two nations suffer and dream at the same time. The one who manages to put his ego aside and work in a team will be the one who will win this battle.
We still have to see if Ronaldo will conquer the ground, but one thing is clear: Portugal’s international football reputation is on the line today and they will play a life-or-death match.