Whatever happens during the European World Cup playoffs, one of the world's greatest footballers will miss Brazil 2014, as Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal goes up against Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Sweden for the right to compete in the summer.
Both the Portuguese forward and the Swedish striker are the undoubted stars of their national teams and both Ballon d'Or nominees must be on match-winning form in order to lift their countries into next year's tournament.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Cristiano Ronaldo. Who wants it more? Who does FIFA want? Who do the sponsors want? The games within the game.— Soccer Translator (@worldfootballcm) November 11, 2013
Yet as much as the tie is pinned around the two high profile players who are set to contest it, there should also be a focus on the lacking quality of the squads behind them.
Beyond Ronaldo, Portugal have very few players anywhere near the attacker's level. Even with such skilful and talented individuals as Nani, Moutinho and Fabio Coentrao, the team feels top heavy and centred—if not wholly reliant—on their Real Madrid super star and national captain.
For a country that was once able to call upon the legendary striker Eusebio to lead the line, Portugal are currently suffering from a serious lack of talent when it comes to frontmen able to work as the national spearhead.
Postiga remains their best option up front, but he is neither effective as a target man nor decisive enough as a finisher to act as Ronaldo's foil or help shoulder the attacking burden Cristiano must carry for the Seleccao.
Similarly, Sweden lack quality beyond the talent sink of Ibrahimovic who leads from the front in a very real sense.
He is a magician on the ball, a ball magnet in the air, a playmaker between the lines and a goal threat from almost every angle in and around the penalty box.
Just ask Joe Hart why he is such a dangerous player.
Able to play with his back to goal, through the channels or running onto balls, he is a uniquely complete striker backed up by a very workman-like team of compatriots several rungs below him in terms of ability or football genius.
Like Portugal, the Swedes have a handful of players who can contribute such as Seb Larsson and Ramus Elm, but not to the level required, making their attacking plans rather predictable: pass it to Zlatan.
Pass it to Cristiano would also be a valid slogan for the Portuguese to live by too, but with both players also placed on similar pedestals for their clubs, they shouldn't struggle too much to thrive in the limelight as they duke it out to reach Brazil.
They are both in good form heading into this pivotal first leg of their World Cup playoff too, with Ronaldo firing home a hat-trick in Madrid's 5-1 home win over Real Sociedad and Ibrahimovic also striking three times for Paris Saint-Germain in a 3-1 victory against Nice at the weekend.
It's unlikely that either of their countries will pose much of a threat to the favourites at the World Cup regardless of who makes it through due to this reliance on them as individuals however, regardless of their brilliance.
Even Brazil need more than Neymar, with the likes of Hulk, Oscar and Lucas important figures in Luiz Felipe Scolari's plans to make the host nation a more multi-faceted trophy threat, while Argentina's defence has long undermined the presence of Lionel Messi in their roster.
A slow start for whichever icon makes it to Brazil could see their nation dumped out in the group stage, yet a truly inspired tournament could fire them into the later stages, but it would take far more—in the era of Spain, Germany and football with a collective focus—to go all the way.
Still, one of Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic will definitely miss out, and their forced absence is set to be a mini-tragedy for the spectacle of next year's tournament.
Both attackers' goals are regularly featured in FIFA's annual round up of the very best strikes in the calendar year—the Puskas Award—and robbing the World Cup of a protagonist capable of producing such magic on the pitch will deprive us all of the sort of player who could make the Brazil 2014 a classic.
Ibrahimovic himself certainly believes that the summer tournament can't afford to miss out on his excellence, according to John Drayton of The Daily Mail.
The Swedish striker has declared:
I think that the World Cup needs Zlatan more than Ronaldo.
The excitement I can bring to the game and the goals I can score—nobody can rival me for that. I believe the fans would want to see me there above anybody.
Who do you want to see competing at the World Cup? Ronaldo or Ibrahimovic?
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