The FIFA World Cup events are a celebration of football, a chance to see a mingle of cultures, styles and colours as fans come together draped in their national team shirts and flags, while on the pitch a whole generation of the globe's best players get to face up to each other.
Everybody loves the chance to see some of the greatest players do battle for the biggest prize in the game, though there is always a small pool of talent which, for all their trophies won at club level, will never get to feature at a World Cup because they represent a nation considerably less successful in the sport.
But once in a while, an even bigger shock occurs—that of a big football country failing to make it through the qualifying stages to take their place in the World Cup finals. When that happens, a host of talented players will of course be denied the chance to shine on the big stage, depriving the world of watching them and the players themselves from taking a shot at glory.
Holland in 2002 missed out on the finals, meaning the likes of Patrick Kluivert and Ruud van Nistelrooy missed the tournament. England did likewise for the World Cup 1994, with David Platt, Paul Gascoigne and John Barnes in the team. There are countless other examples too: Argentina in 1970, Italy in '58 and France in '90 and '94 being some of the most prominent.
For the World Cup in 2014 in Brazil, could Portugal be set to follow suit?
In Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese side boasts one of the top two players in the entire world; along with such top-class support acts as Fabio Coentrao, Joao Moutinho and Bruno Alves, it is certainly a squad and a nation which should be qualifying for the finals.
At present, though, Portugal sits in third place in their UEFA Group F standings in the qualifying section. With only one automatic qualifier and one additional place leading to the playoffs, they are certainly in need of a kick-start to their campaign for the final four matches.
|Position/Nation||Games Played||Points||Goal Difference|
|4. Northern Ireland||5||3||-4|
As shown in the current standings, there is certainly work for Portugal to do—but it is far from a lost cause.
The four remaining matches that Portgual, and Cristiano Ronaldo, face are against Russia (home, June), Northern Ireland (away, September), Israel (home, October) and Luxembourg (home, October).
The first important point to note is that three of the four games take place within their own country, with Portugal already having traveled to Russia and Israel earlier in the group. They suffered a costly defeat in Russia by a single goal to nil, while early in 2013 the visit to Israel resulted in a 3-3 draw.
While they have scraped together enough points to stay in touch with the top two, it has been far from plain sailing in the other matches for Portugal. At halftime against both Azerbaijan and Luxembourg the scores were level. Indeed, until Ronaldo's intervention against the latter they trailed to the minnows, and were also behind against Northern Ireland at half time until a 79-minute Helder Postigo goal rescued a point.
Patently, results and performances have not been consistent enough.
Portugal, led by manager Paulo Bento, would likely have expected to have picked up four victories by this point. To that end, perhaps only the draw with Northern Ireland can be termed "disappointing," but coupled with Israel's strong first half of the campaign—they held Portugal to a draw but were beaten at home by Russia—it has certainly left the Iberian nation in a tough situation.
The qualifier at the end of the present season between Portugal and Russia will be key.
Though Russia have a 100 percent record in the group so far, they are top with two games in hand and know that defeat in Portugal will not be hugely costly if they follow that up with wins at the start of the 2013-14 season against Northern Ireland and Luxembourg. That could work in Portugal's favour, but the mentality shown by the squad so far in qualifying has been weak, and this will be a pressure fixture, no doubt about it.
Cristiano Ronaldo is at the peak of his powers right now and will be desperate to take his talents to the world stage at this point, perhaps mindful of the cries that, despite Leo Messi's Ballon d'Ors and Champions League victories, he hasn't won a World Cup.
The Real Madrid No. 7 knows that if he can help his side to victory over Russia, the path to the World Cup playoff via a second-place finish in the groups will be in sight. Northern Ireland and Luxembourg should present weak enough opposition, leaving just that head-to-head against Israel to worry about.
Goals have been a problem for Portugal, scoring just 11 in six qualifying games—and Ronaldo, with 34 goals in 34 league games at club level, has managed just one himself.
For that reason a draw may not be enough against Israel, so Portugal could well be looking at having to take four wins from their final four games—though if Israel lose to Russia in September, a draw will be enough to hold the current second-place team at bay.
From there and on into the playoffs, drawn at random against other second-place teams, anything could happen.
But Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo know that above all else, they have to focus on picking up a positive result against Russia next month. If they don't, the red and green of Euro 2012's semifinalists could well be sadly missing from Brazil in 2014.