Cristiano Ronaldo essentially guaranteed that Portugal would make the 2022 FIFA World Cup in its final European group-stage qualifier at home against Serbia. But the guarantee came up short and now he will have to sweat it out to make what will likely be his last World Cup.
Portugal entered the final group match in first place in Group A, and a win or draw would have been enough for it to book its ticket to Qatar 2022. Instead, it lost to Serbia 2-1 on a late goal, finishing second and settling for a spot in the playoffs to decide whether the 36-year-old Ronaldo gets a chance to close out his legendary career with a World Cup trophy.
But the playoffs will be tricky: Portugal will have to win two separate one-off knockout matches or miss out on the World Cup for the first time since 1998. Portugal and Ronaldo fans will be praying the playoff draw is kind to them.
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European qualifying Group A final standings
- Serbia: 20 points
- Portugal: 17
- Republic of Ireland: 9
- Luxembourg: 9
- Azerbaijan: 1
Ronaldo was visibly unhappy with his coach Fernando Santos following the match:
How Europe’s World Cup playoffs work
Twelve European nations — the 10 second-place group finishers and two teams from the UEFA Nations League group winners — will be split into three brackets of four teams each. Those three brackets will each have a single World Cup ticket on the line.
The four teams in each of the three brackets will first play a single-elimination semifinal stage (March 24-25), followed by a single-elimination playoff final (March 28-29). Only the winner of the final will make it to Qatar.
The draw to determine the four-team brackets will take place on Nov. 26. Eight of the 12 playoff teams are already known with the rest of the field determined by Wednesday, Nov. 16. Ronaldo’s Portugal is currently the highest-ranked team in the playoff field (listed below in alphabetical order):
|Nation||FIFA Ranking||How qualified||World Cup apps||Titles|
|Austria||32||Nations League||7 of 21||—|
|Czech Republic||31||2nd – Grp. E / Nations League||1 of 6
(as Czech Rep.)
|North Macedonia||74||2nd – Grp. J||0 of 7
|Portugal||8||2nd – Grp. A||7 of 21||—|
|Russia||33||2nd – Grp. H||4 of 7
|Scotland||42||2nd – Grp. F||8 of 21||—|
|Sweden||17||2nd – Grp. B||12 of 21||—|
|Wales||19||2nd – Grp. E / Nations League||1 of 21||—|
|TBD||2nd – Grp. C|
|TBD||2nd – Grp. D|
|TBD||2nd – Grp. G|
|TBD||2nd – Grp. I|
Portugal last qualified via the playoff for the 2014 World Cup. That European playoff format was based on a two-match series in which Portugal got past Sweden in an epic duel between Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. That showdown could take place once again in the playoffs for the 2022 edition.
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Ronaldo is attempting to make his fifth World Cup, having qualified for the last four with Portugal. His nation seemed to be cruising to first place in Group A, only to draw the Republic of Ireland 0-0 on Thursday and then lose to Serbia at home on Sunday to close out group play.
It was after that 0-0 draw in Dublin that Ronaldo felt compelled to assure Portuguese national team fans that qualification would happen at home in the final game. “On Sunday, in front of our fans at home, we’re going to book our place in the Qatar World Cup,” read the final line (translated from Portuguese) of his Instagram post to his 366 million followers.
Ronaldo was more measured and even more poetic in his Instagram message to fans following the Serbia debacle.
“Football has shown us time and time again that sometimes the most difficult paths are the ones that lead us to the most desired outcomes,” read a translated version of his post the day after the loss to Serbia. “Yesterday’s result was tough, but not tough enough to get us down. The goal of being in the 2022 World Cup is still very much alive and we know what we have to do to get there. No excuses. Portugal on the road to Qatar.”