The World Cup in Qatar is sure to be without either Italy or Cristiano Ronaldo. Italy and Portugal, the current and previous European champions, were drawn into the same qualifying playoff bracket on Friday, meaning at least one will fail to qualify for next year's tournament.
Italy will first face North Macedonia at home in a playoff semifinal next March, and the winner will play away at either Portugal or Turkey for a spot at the World Cup. Four-time champion Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, missing the tournament for the first time since 1958 after losing in the playoffs to Sweden. Now, after winning Euro 2020 in July, it may have to beat Euro 2016 champion Portugal to avoid a second straight failure.
"It's not a great draw and it could have gone better," Italy coach Roberto Mancini acknowledged. "Just like we wanted to avoid Portugal, they would have wanted to avoid Italy." Ronaldo has led Portugal to every World Cup since 2006 and this could be his last attempt at winning international soccer's biggest trophy. He will turn 37 before next year's tournament starts.
Ronaldo helped Portugal get through the playoffs for the 2014 World Cup, scoring a hat trick in a 3-2 win over Sweden that featured an epic duel between superstars, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic netting twice for the Swedes.
"It's not worth thinking about (Italy)," Portugal coach Fernando Santos said. "It's important that we concentrate on beating Turkey."
Also in the 12-team draw, Scotland will face Ukraine at home, and the winner will play at Wales or Austria in the final of their bracket. Russia will host Poland for the right to face Sweden or the Czech Republic in their bracket final. Russia or Poland will host the final.
Scotland looks to end a 24-year wait to play at the World Cup while Wales' only appearance was in 1958.
"At the moment, the way the team is playing, the confidence the boys have got, we would be happy to play anyone, anywhere," said Scotland coach Steve Clarke, whose team has won six straight since September. However, Ukraine won at Hampden Park in June, in the Euro 2020 round of 16 against Sweden, and went unbeaten through a World Cup qualifying group won by France.
Sweden will not have Ibrahimovic for its semifinal against the Czechs. The 40-year-old forward has a one-game ban for getting yellow cards in the qualifying group.
"We already did it last time (in 2018) and we of course (know) that we can do it again," said Sweden coach Janne Andersson. The six playoff semifinals will be played as single-leg games March 24. The three finals are played five days later. The three winners will complete Europe's entry of 13 nations in the 32-team lineup in Qatar.
FIFA will make the tournament draw on April 1 in Doha. The European playoffs feature the 10 teams who finished second in their qualifying groups along with two teams — Austria and the Czechs — who won Nations League groups last year. Also, FIFA said Qatar will host the intercontinental playoff in June that will decide the last two qualifiers for the tournament.
The intercontinental draw paired the team from Asia against the team from South America, and a team from North American region CONCACAF against Oceania's representative. Those qualifying campaigns are still being played. The winners of the two single-leg games on June 13-14 will complete the 32-team World Cup lineup.
The intercontinental playoff was originally scheduled for March 2022 as two-leg, home and away series. The games were pushed back as the global qualifying program stalled during the COVID-19 pandemic.