At 37 years old, it’s no secret time is running out for Cristiano Ronaldo.
Playing at a high level is not getting any easier, and the opportunities to compete in top tournaments are becoming scarce.
Missing out on the World Cup, at his age, could mean he’s never playing in soccer’s showcase event again.
Portugal faces two must-win games in the European qualifying playoffs, beginning Thursday when it hosts Turkey. The winner then plays next Tuesday against the winner of European champion Italy vs. North Macedonia for a ticket to Qatar.
Although no one knows if Ronaldo would still play in the next World Cup at age 41, not qualifying for this one would be one of the biggest setbacks of his career.
Ronaldo tried not to think past the task at hand, though.
“Totally focused on the 2022 World Cup,” he said this week on Instagram. “As always, I’m proud to represent Portugal. We know it won’t be easy. We have the maximum respect for the opponents that we will face and they have the same goals as us. But together we will fight to put Portugal where it deserves to be. Let’s do it!”
Ronaldo is trying to make it to his 10th consecutive major tournament. He is the only player to have scored at least once in the finals of nine top tournament in a row, a streak that started at the 2004 European Championship and includes four other Euros and four World Cups.
He is the active Portugal player with the most World Cup goals with seven, two shy of Eusebio.
Portugal was relegated to the playoffs after a heartbreaking 2-1 loss to Serbia at home in the final Group A game in November, when the hosts opened the scoring but conceded the deciding goal in the 90th minute. A draw would have been enough for Portugal, which is trying to qualify for the World Cup for the sixth straight time.
“We can only blame ourselves for being here, and we took responsibility right after the game against Serbia,” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said Wednesday. “That’s in the past and we have to be completely focused on making it to the World Cup.”
Only two consecutive victories will do now.
“It’s not the ideal situation, but it is what it is and we have to face it with responsibility,” Liverpool forward Diogo Jota said. “We can’t make too much drama about it. It’s a soccer match and I believe we can win and make it to the World Cup.”
To make it harder for Portugal, Santos has a depleted squad heading into the game against Turkey because of injuries, suspensions and the coronavirus.
His regular-starting defenders are both out — Pepe because of COVID-19 and Rúben Dias because of an injury.
Santos also won’t be able to count on goalkeeper Anthony Lopes, defender Nelson Semedo and midfielders Renato Sanches and Rúben Neves because of injuries, while defender João Cancelo is out because of a suspension.
Failure in the playoffs could also mean the end of the road in the national team for the 39-year-old Pepe, and maybe even for coach Santos, who has been at Portugal’s helm since 2014.
“That’s not an issue for me right now,” Santos said. “We are focused on tomorrow’s final. That’s all that matters.”
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