Five unforgettable European play-offs
Mamadou Sakho's brace against Ukraine in 2013 and Thierry Henry's helping hand against Ireland in 2009 are both landmarks in the history of Les Bleus
The stellar showdown between Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2013, and Italy’s shock elimination at the hands of Sweden in 2017 are also standout moments
Europe’s first World Cup play-offs came ahead of France 1998 with FR Yugoslavia memorably putting 12 goals past Hungary over two legs
First used in Europe ahead of the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™, the play-offs have frequently served up spectacular showdowns and intense emotions. France was twice the setting for their high drama, first in 2009, when a controversial handball from Thierry Henry helped Les Bleus to prevail, and again four years later, when Mamadou Sakho rose to the occasion by single-handedly seeing off Ukraine with two goals.
The play-offs were also the setting for the 2013 clash of megastars Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden’s surprise elimination of Italy in 2017, and FR Yugoslavia’s 12-1 aggregate win over Hungary in 1997.
Take a trip down memory lane as we take look back at five unforgettable play-off moments.
France - Ukraine (3-0) - 19 November 2013
Though now a totemic moment of Didier Deschamps’ coaching tenure, the omens were not great ahead of the game following a deserved 2-0 defeat in the first leg in Kiev. Under immense pressure for the return fixture on 19 November at the Stade de France, Les Bleus had an inspired Mamadou Sakho to thank for the unexpected and decisive brace that sent the home crowd into raptures (3-0). The other goal came from Karim Benzema, already a key member of the team, as was keeper Hugo Lloris and newcomers Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane. This thrilling redemption forged strong ties among the squad and doubtless contributed to their fine performances at Brazil 2014. There they made it to the quarter-finals, narrowly losing to eventual champions Germany (1-0).
Sweden - Portugal (2-3) - 19 November 2013
One of the most enthralling play-offs in European football history, the meeting of Sweden and Portugal was billed as the clash of two of the world’s best strikers: Ronaldo and Zlatan. Both men lived up to expectations, with Ronaldo giving his side a 1-0 lead from the first leg in Lisbon. The Selecao das Quinas also managed to win the return leg in Solna on 19 November after a thrilling encounter that ebbed and flowed throughout. Ronaldo opened the scoring shortly after the break only for Zlatan to drag his men back into it with two goals in four minutes. CR7 then went one better with a brace in just two minutes to book his side’s place in Brazil. With four goals across the two legs, the irrepressible Portuguese star reminded everyone that he was one of the top two players in the world at the time.
Italy - Sweden (0-0) - 13 November 2017
Italy’s duel with Sweden in November 2017 produced what was unquestionably one of the biggest shocks in the history of UEFA play-offs. For the first time since 1958, four-time world champions Italy would not be present at the FIFA World Cup after being stymied at home in the second leg by a heroic Swedish side (0-0). Unable to score in either leg, despite the attacking threat of Antonio Candreva, Ciro Immobile and Alessandro Florenzi, the Azzurri and their fans were shellshocked by the elimination. More than four years on, the spectre of 2017 still lingers, with Italy once again in the play-offs. Should they overcome North Macedonia in their semi, they will then have to prevail against the winner of Portugal - Turkey to avoid an unthinkable second successive absence from the game’s flagship event.
France - Ireland (1-1) - 18 November 2009
After gracing two Finals in three editions (1998 and 2006), France found themselves really up against it on Tuesday 18 November 2009. Les Bleus were desperate not to relive the nightmares of 1989 and 1993, when, despite a star-studded squad, they missed out on successive World Cups. During 2009, the team’s play had not endeared it to the public, a section of which had already taken to jeering coach Raymond Domenech. Despite winning the first leg in Dublin (0-1), the French then went behind to a valiant Irish side in Paris, who took the game to extra time. Then with 103 minutes on the clock, Thierry Henry controlled the ball with his hand just yards from goal before setting up William Gallas for the equalizer. With VAR not yet in existence, the visitors’ frantic protestations fell on deaf ears and the goal stood. La main de Dieu (The hand of God) proclaimed one headline in the local press the next day. However, Lady Luck would desert France at the World Cup in South Africa, where Les Bleus performed dismally in what was one of the biggest fiascos in the history of French football.
Hungary - Yugoslavia (1-7) - 29 October 1997
The inaugural play-offs on the Old Continent ahead of qualifying for the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™ were notable for FR Yugoslavia’s crushing defeat of Hungary. With 12 goals across the two legs (1-7, 5-0), it remains the biggest winning margin in the history of UEFA play-offs. On 29 October 1997 at the Ulloi Uti Stadion in Budapest, Dragan Stojkovic, Dejan Savicevic and Predrag Mijatovic (hat-trick) were unstoppable in a 7-1 rout as the dreams of Janos Csank’s Magyars evaporated in front of 14,000 stunned spectators. That play-off series was also the start of Croatia’s amazing journey to France. Winners against Ukraine, Slaven Bilic and Co then went all the way to the semi-finals at their maiden World Cup.