Portugal's Fernandes' finds 'brother' Ristovski in the way of World Cup dream

Standing in Bruno Fernandes' way and the FIFA World Cup will be one of his closest friends - defender Stefan Ristovski who helped North Macedonia eliminate Italy, the four-time World Cup champion, from the running to secure a place at the 32-team tournament.

Stefan Ristovski

Stefan Ristovski and Bruno Fernandes, who is now at Manchester United, played 64 games together for Sporting between September 2017 and January 2020, winning the Portuguese Cup and two League Cups.   -  Reuters

Portugal midfielder Bruno Fernandes will play in one of the most important games of his life on Tuesday when his side hosts giant-killers North Macedonia in a playoff final that will secure a place in this year's FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

But standing in Fernandes' way will be one of his closest friends - defender Stefan Ristovski who helped North Macedonia eliminate Italy, the four-time World Cup champion, from the running to secure a place at the 32-team tournament.

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"Tomorrow we will have to put our friendship aside, it's hard to have your brother between you and your biggest dream," former Sporting defender Ristovski told Reuters on Monday in fluent Portuguese.

"I'm proud of our relationship, it will be good to see him, but football will move on without us. Our personal lives don't matter when the game starts so I'll do everything in my power to get that win and take my country to their first World Cup," he added.

Dinamo Zagreb's Ristovski played three seasons in Lisbon before moving to Croatia last year, featuring more than 80 times for Sporting and even being made captain for some games, creating a close relationship with the local fans.

Ristovski and Fernandes, who is now at Manchester United, played 64 games together for Sporting between September 2017 and January 2020, winning the Portuguese Cup and two League Cups.

"I feel like I'm Portuguese in several ways, I could never imagine I would be in a situation like this, having to face Portugal in such an important game" Ristovski said.

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"I have a strong relationship with this country. Portugal left a mark on me. Bruno is one of my best friends but this is football. I know the Portuguese players well and I conveyed as much information as I could to my coach to help my team to win," he added.

The 30-year-old defender is proud to have helped his team win 1-0 away to Italy in their World Cup playoff semi-final and make North Macedonia a force to be reckoned with.

His manager Blagoja Milevski agreed with his captain and said Portugal would regret it if it takes his team lightly.

"No need to talk about the quality and individual talent that Portugal have, they have all the respect from our part. But we didn't come here for tourism. We came to win and we will do everything to accomplish our goal," he said.

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