Two of world football’s biggest names will meet Friday in the playoffs to determine Europe’s final four World Cup qualifiers.
Ever since last month’s draw pitted Portugal against Sweden, the matchup has been billed as a head-to-head between Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
It will take something special to budge them from the spotlight, but Iceland is attempting to do just that.
A Nordic nation better known for fishing and freezing temperatures than football, Iceland would become the least populous nation to play at a World Cup if it can get past Croatia.
“This is the most important game in the history of the Icelandic men’s team,” Iceland midfielder Olafur Ingi Skulason said.
In the other two-leg matches, it’s Ukraine against France and Greece vs. Romania. The second legs take place on Tuesday, when the 13 qualifiers from Europe will be finalized.
Owning two of the biggest egos in football, Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic have dominated the build-up to the most anticipated of the four playoffs.
Both players are in supreme form, with Ronaldo having scored 16 goals in 13 league games for Real Madrid this season and Ibrahimovic netting a string of brilliant goals for Paris Saint-Germain in the French league and Champions League.
They both belong on world football’s biggest stage, but one will not be making the trip to Brazil.
“With the squad and the individuals they have, Portugal is naturally the favorite,” Ibrahimovic said in an interview with Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport. “But we finished second in a group with Germany, which I consider the strongest squad in Europe, while they finished second in a group they should have won.
“So I think we deserve to go to Brazil more than they do.”
In Sweden, local media have republished the famous picture of Ronaldo crying after Portugal’s loss to Greece in the 2004 European Championship final, suggesting he might shed more tears next week.
“Let’s hope he looks like that after Nov. 19,” said Sweden defender Mikael Lustig, who will be tasked with marking a forward he describes as the “best football player in the world right now.”
Portugal is at home for the first leg.
In Iceland, excitement is rising. Other sports organizations have changed their schedules to avoid clashing with one of biggest occasions in the history of Icelandic sport.
It has been a logistical slog to get the field prepared at the Laugardalsvollur national stadium, which has never hosted a match so late in the year, because of Iceland’s unique climate.
Preparations started last week to get the field as game-ready as possible, with a special fabric placed over the grass with hot air blowing under the cloth. The forecast for Friday is 0 degrees C (32 degrees F) with sleet and snow, and referee Alberto Unidiano Mallenco will arrive a day earlier than planned to determine whether the field is playable due to the weather.
Win or lose on Friday, Icelanders will celebrate.
“I cannot say that we have been successful yet, but we’ve done pretty well, and it is great to go into two playoff games and have a chance to get to Brazil,” said Iceland coach Lars Lagerback, who led Sweden and Nigeria at previous World Cups.
Trinidad and Tobago, with about 1.2 million inhabitants, is currently the least populous nation to qualify for the World Cup, in 2006. Iceland has about 320,000.
The Iceland match will mark the coaching debut of Croatia’s 42-year-old Niko Kovac, who stepped up from the under-21 team after Igor Stimac was following the national team’s failure to qualify directly for the World Cup.
France, which has reached two of the last four World Cup finals, has the highest profile of the eight countries remaining but must qualify from the playoffs for the second straight campaign.
Four years ago, the French got past Ireland because of an infamous handball by Thierry Henry in extra time, earning the striker and his team the ire of world football. They will be hoping for a more straightforward passage to the final tournament this time around, against a team it has never lost to in seven meetings.
For Franck Ribery, a contender for this year’s world player of the year award and in the form of his life for Bayern Munich and France, missing the World Cup doesn’t bare thinking about.
“You don’t ask yourself that question. I don’t want to think about it,” Ribery said. “I want us to win and to qualify. After all, it’s Brazil. It’s the land of a football.”