Apart from a magical Christian Eriksen hat-trick and the emotional end of Gianluigi stellar Italy career, this year’s World Cup playoffs were fairly uneventful. But anything would compared to what happened four years ago, as Cristiano Ronaldo faced Zlatan Ibrahimovic for a place in Brazil. By Jamie Braidwood
Qualifying for a World Cup is always a big deal, but it’s easy to forget just how significant it was to qualify for Brazil 2014.
The World Cup was returning to its spiritual home for the first time since 1950. In the years since, Brazil had won the competition five times and the country had became known for the way it lived and breathed the sport. Football, the Selecao and the Maracana were as iconic to Brazil was as Copacabana beach and Christ the Redeemer.
Although trips to the the USA (1994), South Korea and Japan (2002) and South Africa (2010) were instrumental in taking the World Cup to new continents, it seemed that by choosing Brazil as its latest non-European destination, the World Cup was getting serious again. It would simply be unmissable.
It was in this context that Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden met in Stockholm in November 2013. There was only room for one of them at Brazil and it had all come down to one game. For two of the best players in the world, who were already at the peak of their careers, it potentially represented a final opportunity to make a World Cup. Who knew where their careers would be in four years time?
It was a travesty that only one of them would qualify, especially given that one of the other playoff matches featured Romania and Greece. You want to see the best players in the world at the World Cup and Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic were certainly two of them. Ronaldo at the age of 28 was officially recognised as the best player in the world and was the current holder of the Ballon D’Or while Ibrahimovic just been nominated into the FIFA Team of the Year for the first time at the age of 32 and had just won another league title at another club with PSG.
Ronaldo – who else – had given Portugal a narrow lead going into the second leg in Sweden. Crucially though, his side had shutout Ibrahimovic a few days earlier and had prevented the Swedes from scoring an away goal. Ronaldo and Portugal knew that a draw would do.
Up to then, Ronaldo’s performances at major tournaments had been mixed. Bright showings as a teenager at Euro 2004 and Germany 2006, where he was infamously involved in Wayne Rooney’s dismissal in the quarter-finals, had been followed by muted displays in 2008, 2010 and 2012. At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Ronaldo only scored one goal, in a 7-0 thrashing of North Korea, as Portugal were eliminated in the second round.
He had a point to prove – that was for sure. Ronaldo’s goal scoring record for Real Madrid was simply ridiculous. He’d scored 55 in as many games the previous campaign. Now, it was time for him to replicate it for Portugal.
After a cagey first-half in which both sides had chances, the match burst into life in the second. Sweden knew they couldn’t afford Ronaldo even the slightest opportunity, but that was all he needed. With Sweden pushing forward and leaving space in behind, Ronaldo made a peeling run off the back of defender Martin Olsson and latched onto a perfectly weighted through ball from Joao Moutinho. Two touches later he was in the box, opening the angle and firing a fierce left footed strike across Andreas Isaksson and into the far corner. “One step closer to Brazil!” cried the commentator.
At the other end of the pitch, Zlatan Ibrahimovic could only watch as his World Cup dream slipped away. At the age of 32, this was surely his last chance of reaching another finals. He had played at a World Cup before, once as a 20-year-old in 2002 and again in Germany in 2006. Both appearances came at the start of Ibrahimovic’s career, however. He had the talent, but he wasn’t the superstar he is today. In two substitute appearances in 2002 and three starts in 2006, Ibrahimovic had failed to score or make his mark at a World Cup, and time was running out.
Sweden now needed to score three, and only had roughly 40 minutes to do it in. But never rule out Zlatan Ibrahimovic. A year earlier, Sweden had fought from 4-0 down to draw 4-4 with Germany in Berlin, with Ibrahimovic starting the comeback in the 62nd minute. This match wasn’t over yet.
In the 68th minute, Ibrahimovic rose highest from an inswinging corner to head in Sweden’s first. It got the home crowd going and gave Sweden a glimmer of hope. Moments later there were raucous cries for a penalty as Kim Kallstrom went down in the box, but referee Howard Webb pointed the other way. The momentum had turned and Portugal were on the ropes. In the 72nd minute Sweden were awarded a free kick right on the edge of the box. A crowd of players surrounded the ball, but there was no doubt over who was going to take it. Ibrahimovic’s shot was low and so hard that it powered through the Portuguese wall and goalkeeper Rui Patricio.
The tie had been turned on its head and there were still 15 minutes left to play. Ibrahimovic had taken control and now it was Ronaldo who was watching his dream slip away. But as long as Portugal were ahead, Ronaldo remained at his most dangerous.
With Sweden pushing higher than ever, the forward exploited the space that was left behind. After some nice hold up play from Helder Postiga, Ronaldo was released down the left wing with a ball over the top. Running onto a bouncing ball, he cushioned it on his thigh before firing the most accurate of strikes low and into the far corner.
Swedish hearts were broken but Ronaldo wasn’t finished. Minutes later he was through again, this time coming in from the left. Touch, touch, round the keeper, shot high into the empty net, rattling in off the bar as it crossed the line. His celebration for the second goal was cold, pointing to the himself and then to the ground as if to say “it’s all over”. This time he ran over to the substitutes, his face covered in joy. He had won the game all on his own and now it was time to celebrate. It was perhaps one of the greatest hat-tricks of all time, given the timing and manner of the goals, as well as the importance of the game. There would be no World Cup for Ibrahimovic, but he had contributed to what was a thrilling tie.
At the time, the tie couldn’t have seemed more important. Given what has happened since, however, it all seems less significant. First of all, and despite Ronaldo’s incredible form in 2013-14, Portugal were terrible in Brazil and failed to make it out of the group stage. It seemed like a waste. Their victory over Sweden should’ve led to something bigger and because it didn’t, it’s difficult to look back on their victory in Stockholm fondly.
It also hasn’t turned out to be Ronaldo’s last shot at World Cup glory. Now at the age of 32, the past four years have been the best of Ronaldo’s career. He has won three Champions Leagues, two more Ballon D’Ors and helped Portugal to a European Championship in 2016. He also scored 14 goals, the most ever scored in a European World Cup qualifying campaign, as Portugal made it through to Russia 2018.
Sweden have also qualified for next summer’s tournament. Russia 2018 was their first qualifying campaign since Ibrahimovic’s retirement from international football but they made it through a group which contained France and the Netherlands before eliminating Italy in the playoffs. We will have to wait and see if Ibrahimovic, who this week returned to the field following a cruciate ligament injury, will make himself available for the tournament.
In 2013, Sweden and Portugal’s playoff tie represented a final opportunity for two of the world’s best players to make a World Cup. Four years later, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them both lead their countries out on football’s biggest stage. It wasn’t their final chance at all, but they weren’t to know that on what was a memorable night in November 2013.