The great clash. The battle royale. The meeting of two titans of the game. The World Cup qualifying play-off between Portugal and Sweden has hardly been billed as a game between two teams, but as the battle of two players—a sort of football version of Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus.
It is, of course, something of a shame that both Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will not be at the World Cup. The universe is being made to choose between two of the defining talents of our generation, and it hardly seems fair. We want the chocolate cake AND the sticky toffee pudding, not to be asked which one we would prefer.
Zlatan's response to the question was predictably arrogant and magnificent. Quoted by ESPN, he said:
"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.
"If Ronaldo, or Neymar, or Rooney, or Messi, or Xavi is missing then it is a shame for the competition - and it is a shame for the World Cup that one of myself or Ronaldo will not be in Brazil. I just need to make sure I do everything over the next two games to make sure that it is him who misses out and not myself."
We would not have expected, or indeed wanted, anything less.
While some have opined that it is a crying shame that one of these two will miss out while Switzerland and the (whatever the opposite of myriad is) talents at their disposal will be in Brazil, it is a slightly curious thing that there has been so much focus on two individuals.
Some might argue that it is a symbol of the celebrity-obsessed culture of today, that we care too much about personalities, about style rather than substance, but it would be tough to argue that if, in the 1970s, there arose a situation where the cosmos was asked to choose between either Franz Beckenbauer or Johan Cruyff, it would be much different.
Surely more of the focus should be on why these two teams find themselves in this situation in the first place.
Portugal did have a reasonably tough opponent in their group, drawn against Russia, but it wasn't the games against Fabio Capello's side that tripped them up (they won at home and lost away), but rather criminal draws against Israel (twice) and Northern Ireland that scuppered their chances of automatic qualification.
And this is not an isolated event, either. This is the third tournament in a row that Portugal have been forced to go through the play-offs, and they only qualified for Euro 2008 in second-place, behind Poland in their group. For all their talent, it would be difficult to argue, based on results, that Portugal's presence in these play-offs is a surprise.
Sweden had a rather trickier group, and second place behind Germany was the best they could realistically have hoped for.
However, without Zlatan in their side it could have been very different—the PSG striker scored the decisive goals in four of their six wins (including the winner in a potentially embarrassing 2-1 victory over the Faroe Islands, in which they went behind), carrying the team on his back throughout the qualification stage.
The truth is that these are two average sides with two exceptional players. While we may mourn the absence of either Zlatan or Ronaldo at the World Cup, the omission of their respective teams will not be a huge loss.
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