Cristiano Ronaldo was the first player to arrive on Monday morning at Portugal's training camp in Obidos, a little way north of the country's capital, Lisbon. Obediently, he drove there in an Audi, official vehicle suppliers to Real Madrid, whose match and first defeat of the season at Sevilla the previous evening he had missed through injury.
All Portugal wanted to know: how bad was the ankle problem that had deprived his club of their most expensive and influential player? It would be fine for today, answered Ronaldo, when his country meet Hungary in the first of their two make-or-break final qualifying group matches for the 2010 World Cup. With the Portuguese third in the table this was comforting news for a nation that can still scarcely believe the struggles involved in trying to reach next summer's showpiece.
The same Portugal - who finished second at Euro 2004, reached the semi-finals of the 2006 World Cup and the quarters at the last European Championship - stand a very long step from making the 32 nations who will line up in South Africa next June. They are two points behind Sweden and five beneath leaders, Denmark, in Group One of the Uefa zone. The bated breath with which Ronaldo's fitness bulletin was awaited had been natural. But the wait for his first goal in these frustrating qualifiers has been going on for nearly a year.
One statistic that helps explain Portugal's difficulties over the past 13 months is the number of goals their leading attacking footballer has contributed in the qualifiers: None in six appearances. That is six fewer than he has managed in his first half-dozen games for Madrid in La Liga over the past month and a half. The goal drought set in most severely in the first half of this year. Having lost 3-2 at home to Denmark in their second match, Portugal then went 270 minutes without scoring, sharing two goalless draws with the Swedes, and another at home to Albania.
They were drawing with the Albanians until desperately late in Tirana during the summer, salvaging the campaign with a 2-1 victory there. A third win - from eight games so far - was achieved by the very narrowest margin away in Hungary, whose aggressive style left a strong impression on Portugal's head coach, Carlos Queiroz: not so much the Mighty as the Excessively Macho Magyars. "They played very close to the point at which you'd call it violent conduct," said Queiroz, making particular reference to the marking of Ronaldo in Budapest.
He fears Ronaldo's tender ankle might again become a particular target for opponents who arrive in Lisbon with their own 2010 ambitions. Hungary, fourth in the table, are on the same points, 13, as Queiroz's team. Ronaldo did not train with his colleagues until Thursday, but is expected to be paired up front with the Sporting striker, Liedson, one of three Brazil-born players regularly used by Queiroz.
Pepe, another of them, is suspended for the Hungary game, which deprives the head coach not just of an athletic and mobile centre-back but a candidate to cover in central midfield in the absence of the injured Juventus player, Tiago. The concerns in that area have led to a recall for the Glasgow Rangers midfielder, Pedro Mendes, for the first time in more than a year. There are also fitness doubts over Jose Bosingwa, the right-back from Chelsea.
For all that, Queiroz knows he has at his disposal a far more talented group than should be scuffling around trying to scrape into the play-offs. His public know it, too, which is why the world's most expensive player made a special appeal to the crowd at the Estadio da Luz. "We want massive support because that really can make a difference," said Ronaldo. "We know it's still going to be hard for us to qualify for the World Cup, but nothing is lost yet. We still expect to go through and the possibility we might not is not something I have even considered. That goes for all of us. The spirit is good," he added.
The Portuguese are conscious they, and their audience, will have heard news of Denmark's match with Sweden, an earlier kick-off, when they start at the Luz. A Denmark victory is their preferred scenario, as they could - by beating Hungary - then leapfrog Sweden into second place, and definitely gain at least play-off berth, provided they defeat Malta at home next Wednesday. "I'd actually prefer it if the matches were being played simultaneously," remarked the Portugal defender Ricardo Carvalho.
"The news beforehand might be good or it might be bad, and we just need to concentrate on our task." @Email:email@example.com Portugal v Hungary, 11.45pm, Aljazeera Sport +2