A World Cup without France, Portugal, Mexico or Uruguay?
Let me put it another way. A World Cup without Ronaldo, Suarez, Ribery or Hernandez?
That's what's on the line here. Some of the greatest names in soccer could be absent from the greatest show on earth next summer. Brazil 2014 is but seven shorts months away yet the road to Rio is proving anything but straightforward for an elite group of household names and their respective countries.
There is one last chance, beginning Wednesday as the World Cup qualifying playoffs begin. Coaches, who have spent years getting to this point, are staking their jobs on the next week.
Players, who grew up dreaming one day they would play at a World Cup, know failure now could forever end their fantasy.
Fans from different continents
, cultures and languages are united by a common goal, and by fear. Tens of millions across the planet can only watch and hope. And pray.
We are waiting for the stragglers. 20 nations
have so far qualified
to join hosts Brazil. Just 11 berths remain but 22 countries are still in the running. The final cuts will be swift and decisive. The qualifying playoffs will see to that.
Dog eat dog
Home and away it is dog eat dog for the right to be present at the World Cup draw on Dec. 6th. It is a global lottery where results cannot be guaranteed. Drama, on the other hand, comes standard with every ticket.
Few will recall instantaneously which teams survived the cull four years ago. But everyone remembers how France booked its passage in a playoff against Ireland. Thierry Henry's unseen and unpunished handball led directly to the decisive goal -- a heart-wrenching episode that almost led to a diplomatic incident.
Most true soccer fans were happy to witness France's subsequent self-destruction in South Africa. Even French fans were embarrassed by the players' revolution, which ended in ignominy, suspensions and the abrupt removal of coach Raymond Domenech. Despite his formal apology, Henry can probably never enter an Irish pub for the rest of his natural life.
Heavyweights and minnows have been tossed in the same bubbling pot. France, world champion as recently as 1998, faces the same nerve-shredding tension as Burkina Faso -- which didn't even exist as a country 30 years ago.
Uruguay, which eclipsed its giant neighbours Brazil and Argentina by reaching the semifinals at South Africa 2010, is fighting for the same cause as Iceland -- a country which has never qualified for anything, ever.
This is a moment where bravery and belief triumph over pragmatism. If ever there was an occasion where 'go for it' was an appropriate battle cry, this is it. Confidence is crucial but a sense of entitlement won't cut it in the coming days.
Cristiano Ronaldo is a world-class player -- but he cannot do it all by himself. FIFA's marketers may be secretly willing Portugal to prevail against Sweden but it's not as simple as that. The Scandinavians have earned their right to a playoff and in Zlatan Ibrahimovic boast a goal scorer every bit as clinical as Ronaldo.
Holding its breath
Half a world away Mexico is holding its breath. Few nations can match the Mexicans when it comes to home advantage. The giant Azteca Stadium has been a fortress for decades but inexplicably the ramparts have crumbled in recent months.
Mexico won only one of its five home games during CONCACAF's Hexagonal and on three occasions failed to score in front of its legions of adoring fans. New Zealand is better known for the quality of its rugby and cricket teams but the Kiwis are well equipped to ride a storm of intimidation as evidenced by their performances in South Africa.
On paper some of the matchups appear lop-sided but the truth is there are no favourites. Of course Uruguay should beat Jordan handily but had the South Americans done their qualifying job properly they wouldn't be facing yet another inter-continental playoff. Suarez and Cavani will be licking their lips but reputations count for nothing in soccer's last chance saloon.
Heroes and villains will duly emerge, nations will celebrate in the streets and grown men will cry. That much we know.
All other bets are off.
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