A round of applause greeted Pepe, the veteran central defender, when he joined his Portugal teammates on Sunday. It was mostly respectful, and a little light-hearted. “The king is back!” shouted Cristiano Ronaldo to the one of the few players to whom Ronaldo has to look up in the national team’s hierarchy, at least when it comes to age and endurance.
Pepe, ruled out of action until the weekend because of Covid, turned 39 last month, two-and-half-weeks after Ronaldo celebrated his 37th birthday, and two months after Jose Fonte, Pepe’s fellow centre-half, turned 38.
There’s quite a collection of players in line to face North Macedonia in Porto on Tuesday evening who need no further reminding of what is at stake. Lose and Portugal will not be at the 2022 World Cup. Suffer the same fate as befell Italy against the Macedonians last Thursday and Pepe, Fonte and Ronaldo will almost certainly have said farewell to playing in a World Cup ever again.
Portugal’s map of their route to Qatar 2022 looked very different a year ago. When they travelled to Serbia in their qualifying group, they did so confident that the leadership of that group would be consolidated. Two Diogo Jota goals in Belgrade gave them a comfortable half-time lead over the Serbs.
Then the campaign buckled. Serbia scored twice. In the closing moments Ronaldo struck back, the comeback king that he is, and was celebrating what he assumed was his 103rd international goal when he noted the assistant referee had raised his flag for an offside. The official was mistaken, as television replays proved. Unfortunately for the Portuguese, there was no VAR in operation. The scoreline stayed at 2-2.
That refereeing error would have repercussions. In the last minute of the last qualifying fixture in the group, in Lisbon, Serbia’s Aleksandar Mitrovic completed a stirring comeback. Serbia had trailed 1-0 in the game to decide who snatched the automatic qualification berth at the top of Group A. Mitrovic’s goal made it 2-1 to the visitors, and pushed Portugal into second place.
They fully expected to have to overcome Italy in their play-off final. The stunning 1-0 victory for North Macedonia over the Azzurri in Palermo in last week’s semi-final challenged their – and almost everybody else’s - predictions.
Portugal’s semi-final, against Turkey in Porto, did not entirely go as mapped out, either. As in Belgrade, they swept to a 2-0 half-time lead. Burak Yilmaz then halved it, and would have erased it had he converted a penalty given away by Fonte. A third, late Portuguese goal sealed a scoreline that camouflaged the second-half anxiety.
Turkey are 39th in Fifa’s world rankings. You have to scroll all the way down to 67th to find North Macedonia. That’s 59 places beneath Portugal, but even further from sixth-ranked Italy, the reigning European champions. And these minnows have bitten big fish before. Twelve months ago the Macedonians defeated Germany in Duisburg in a group-stage qualifier.
Ronaldo acknowledged this was not the play-off final he had anticipated. “It was a surprise,” he said of learning on Thursday, that Italy had been eliminated thanks to Aleksandar Trajkovski’s stoppage time strike in Sicily, “but they have done that in a few games.”
Ronaldo and Pepe have been around long enough they can remember a frustrating evening in Skopje and a display of resolute Macedonian defending that kept the Portugal of 2012 goalless the last – and only – time these two countries met.
The Macedonian method against Italy was based around containment and very occasional counter-attack. When Trajkovski latched on to a long ball that Italy had failed to clear, he fired in only his team’s fourth shot at goal for the entire semi-final. Italy racked up more than 30 unsuccessful attempts at the other end.
“We know they are very well organised,” said Ronaldo of North Macedonia, “and we know what their strong points are, but at the same time if we are at our best, we can beat any side in the world.”
As for the personal stakes, a fifth expedition to a World Cup and probably his last, Ronaldo acknowledged the importance of tonight, but not that defeat would necessarily put a full stop on his World Cup career. He will be 41 by the time of the 2026 tournament.
“I’m starting to hear the question [if this would be my last World Cup] quite a lot,” he said. “As long I’m enjoying playing, I will keep playing. When I’m not enjoying it, I will stop. But it will be me who decides when.”