Can you imagine a FIFA World Cup in Qatar without Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo or Egypt's Mohamed Salah? Or a tournament in which European champions Italy or African champions Senegal fail to qualify? Well the bad news for those mentioned, and fans across the globe, is that some of the game's headline acts will see their Qatar 2022 dreams extinguished in the coming days during the World Cup playoffs.
By the end of this international break, seven nations will have booked their place in this year's World Cup through the playoffs. Three more will be confirmed when the Intercontinental playoffs and the culmination of the European path involving Ukraine take place in June.
- World Cup playoffs on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games, replays (U.S.)
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- World Cup playoff schedule: UEFA | CAF
In Europe, some of the major nations, including Portugal and Italy, are walking a tightrope after failing to top their qualification groups. And in Africa, five head-to-head ties over two legs will see some of the continent's traditional powerhouse countries miss out.
It promises to be a tense and dramatic round of playoffs in Europe and Africa, so here's your guide as to how it will all play out.
How it works
In Europe, the 10 runners-up from the group stage, plus the two highest-placed teams in the 2021 Nations League who failed to achieve a top-two group finish (Austria and Czech Republic), have been drawn into three separate playoff paths.
Each path has four teams, with two one-legged semifinals feeding into a one-off final. The seeded team is at home in the semifinal and a draw has already taken place to decide who has home advantage in the final.
So there is no margin for error. It's one game, in both the semis and the final, to decide who qualifies.
Path A involves Wales vs. Austria in Cardiff (Thursday, 2.45 p.m ET., stream live on ESPN+) and Scotland vs. Ukraine in Glasgow, meeting to set up a final in Cardiff or Vienna. However, the conflict in Ukraine means this path will not be concluded during this international break.
Path B was due to be Russia vs. Poland in Moscow and Sweden vs. Czech Republic in Stockholm (Thursday, 2.45 p.m ET., stream live on ESPN+), feeding into a final held in either Moscow or Chorzow, but Russia's invasion of Ukraine has led to FIFA kicking the 2018 World Cup hosts out of the competition. Poland get a bye.
Path C is the real show-stopper, with Portugal vs. Turkey in Porto (Thursday, 2.45 p.m ET., stream live on ESPN2) and Italy vs. North Macedonia in Palermo (Thursday, 2.45 p.m ET., stream live on ESPN+) potentially setting up a clash between Portugal and Italy in Porto for a place at the World Cup. Turkey will play Italy or North Macedonia in Konya if they beat Portugal on Thursday.
In Africa, there is slightly more breathing room for the teams involved, with five separate ties being played over two legs. But some of Africa's biggest teams and stars will miss out, with the winners of each tie qualifying for Qatar.
Here's the draw:
DR Congo vs. Morocco (Friday, 10 a.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+)
Cameroon vs. Algeria (Friday, 12 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+)
Mali vs. Tunisia (Friday, 12 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+)
Egypt vs. Senegal (Friday, 2.30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+)
Ghana vs. Nigeria (Friday, 2.30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+)
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How has the war in Ukraine impacted the World Cup playoffs?
Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine last month, FIFA suspended Russia from all competitive football. The Russian Football Union (RFU) appealed against the decision at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), but that was rejected on March 15.
Prior to Russia being kicked out of the playoffs, the national associations of Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic -- Russia's Path B rivals -- all issued statements insisting they would not play any game against the Russians.
Poland have now been given a bye to the Path B final and will face either Sweden or the Czechs at Slaski Stadium in Chorzow on March 29.
In Path A, the Ukrainian Association of Football (UAF) requested a postponement of their playoff against Scotland. More than half of the Ukraine squad play their football in the country, so the majority of their players are unable to leave or prepare for a World Cup playoff.
FIFA has sanctioned the postponement, and although no date has been confirmed for the Scotland-Ukraine game to be rescheduled, sources have told ESPN that it is hoped the fixture may be played in June. However, if the conflict continues, FIFA faces a tough decision in terms of a cut-off point for Path A to be concluded.
The other semifinal between Wales and Austria will take place in Cardiff on Thursday, with the winners then playing a home tie against Scotland or Ukraine in the final at a time and date to be decided.
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Who are the big names who could miss out in Europe?
One of the last two European champions won't make it. Thanks to Portugal and Italy being drawn in the same path, one of the biggest nations in world football won't qualify for Qatar.
Failure to qualify would be disastrous for Italy. The four-time World Cup winners missed out in 2018 after losing a two-legged playoff against Sweden, but they now risk the same fate less than 12 months after beating England in the Euro 2020 final. A 90th-minute penalty miss by Jorginho against Switzerland in Rome last November cost the Italians top spot in Group C and has now left the Azzurri needing to beat North Macedonia before a one-off final against Portugal or Turkey for a place in Qatar.
It's also possible there will be no World Cup swan song for Cristiano Ronaldo in Qatar. The 37-year-old, the all-time leading goal scorer in men's international football, has said he will retire from international duty after the World Cup, but he may not get that far. But for a 90th-minute goal for Serbia scored by Aleksandar Mitrovic in a 2-1 win in Lisbon last November, Portugal would have avoided the playoffs and qualified as group winners. Now the Euro 2016 winners face two tough games to qualify.
In Path B, 40-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic is back in the Sweden squad and aiming to make it to Qatar after missing the 2018 competition. But if the AC Milan forward gets there, it will mean no World Cup for Bayern's Robert Lewandowski, whose Poland team await the winners of Sweden vs. the Czech Republic in the final after their bye against Russia. So we could be set for a Lewandowski vs. Ibrahimovic showdown in Chorzow on March 29.
Who are the big names who could miss out in Africa?
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) performed the draw for the African playoff route on Jan. 22, which was the midway point of the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon. As a result, the seeded draw was based on the FIFA World Ranking prior to the tournament, with the five highest-ranked teams in one pot and the remaining teams in the other.
The downside to that decision has been borne out in the playoff draw, which will see the two AFCON finalists -- Senegal and Egypt -- meeting for a place at the 2022 World Cup. If CAF had done the draw after the tournament, Egypt would have been among the top seeds and Africa would not have been faced with two of its best teams battling it out for one place in Qatar.
But aside from one of Africa's best two teams missing out, we also face either Sadio Mane or Mohamed Salah failing to qualify for the World Cup. Mane and Salah are two of the biggest, if not THE biggest, stars in African football. They are also stellar names in the Premier League and Champions Leagues following their goal-scoring feats with Liverpool. But one of them will be spending November and December at home while the World Cup plays out.
Cameroon vs. Algeria will see one World Cup regular qualify at the expense of another, while two of the traditional giants of African football, Ghana and Nigeria, will also play for one spot.
Are there any other playoffs?
Qatar is staging a four-team playoff between March 27-30 to decide the team which goes through to the Intercontinental playoffs from the Oceania (OFC) region.
However, an outbreak of COVID-19 infections forced Vanuatu to withdraw from the qualifiers over the weekend and the Cook Islands have also revealed a number of positive results, so the Solomon Islands and Tahiti are expected to progress by default and face New Zealand and Fiji in Qatar this week. The winner of the Oceania playoffs will then face the fourth-placed team in North America (CONCACAF) in Qatar on June 13-14 for a place at the World Cup.
The fourth-placed team in Asia (AFC) will face the fifth-placed team in South America (CONMEBOL) for one qualification spot in Doha on June 13-14. Ahead of the final round of qualifiers, the AFC team will be either Australia or the United Arab Emirates, to play against Peru from CONMEBOL.
When is the World Cup draw?
It's closer than you think. The draw for the group stage of Qatar 2022 will be on April 1 at the Doha Exhibition and Convention Center at 7 p.m. local time (4 p.m. GMT / 11 a.m. ET).
Thirty-two nations will be drawn into eight groups of four and the draw will be seeded based on the FIFA World Ranking. Those teams involved in playoffs in June will be assigned groups on a qualifier TBC basis.
Teams from the same continental confederation, other than UEFA, cannot be paired together in the same group. A maximum of two UEFA nations can be placed in the same group.
The 2022 World Cup starts on Nov. 21, with hosts Qatar playing the opening game at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor. The final will be staged at the Lusail Stadium, Doha, on Dec. 18.