A 37-year-old jobless man begins his latest quest to conquer the world. Clubless but not goalless, Cristiano Ronaldo started in signature style. His first goal as a free agent gave him another record, as the first player to score in five different World Cups. The achievement is a testament to the astonishing longevity of the Portuguese who, for the second time, is a former Manchester United footballer. For Ronaldo, who extended his own record to 118 international goals, every celebration doubles as justification.
Yet Portugal’s triumphant start owes more to compatriot United who would not dream of letting him go; to a footballer who often plays better without Ronaldo. After Andre Ayew equalized for Ghana, Bruno Fernandes had two assists in the space of three minutes, one after Ronaldo was dismissed, but not for him. Each one is a defense-splitting pass for the quicker runner forward off the flank. Joao Felix restored Portugal’s lead with a fine dink. Rafael Leao extended it by firing into the far corner. That Leao just signed and Felix cost over £100 million speaks for the depth of attacking talent that Fernando Santos possesses. For some, it questions Ronaldo’s primacy.
For Ronaldo, a goal is an eloquent enough answer and his eighth in the World Cup – although none have come in the knockout stages – was a firm penalty, which was taken by Lawrence Ati-Zigi. It was luck too, Mohammed Salisu felt he won the ball when Ronaldo fell onto the pitch.
Ronaldo’s performance draws a different conclusion. He’s guilty of several glaring faults – mere perversion or evidence that his powers are waning? – and after starting the 2018 World Cup with a hat-trick, he could do it again. Portugal’s progress to victory could have been easier had Ronaldo scored twice within the first 12 minutes but an unusually heavy touch cost him his first chance and allowed Ati-Zigi to block. Then, after the incredible leap that has become his trademark, one of the best headers of his generation is headed wide. When he first provided a convincing finish, the goal was disallowed: Ronaldo gained possession because he pushed Alexander Djiku out of the way.
But when the Portuguese fans launched into a chorus of his name, Ronaldo responded, scoring within minutes. He illustrated this week’s drama was not limited to Tuesday’s announcement that he would be leaving United. The penalties mean an uneventful first hour devolves into a somewhat frantic, and sometimes fragmentary, finale.
Referee Ismail Elfath played his part. Ronaldo is not alone in taking advantage of his generosity. Annoyed at picking up a yellow card for a foul on Felix, Alidu Seidu clashed with the Atletico Madrid forward, thrusting him forward in an act of reckless stupidity, but managed to avoid the red card. Had he left earlier, Ghana might not have frightened Portugal so much.
They are finally on the offensive and starting with some kind of defensive advantage to believe their low rating and troubled opening into 2022; they were knocked out of the African Cup of Nations by one point and a humiliating loss to the Comoros. But Otto Addo’s appointment has brought refinement and his persuasive power is the reason why Salisu signed up for their cause. The Southampton centre-back was unlucky as only his fourth cap can be remembered for the penalty.
Beaten in the first round, Ghana got more ambition thereafter. Mohammed Kudus was the catalyst, hitting a 20-yard shot and producing a smashing shot that was stopped by Diogo Costa. His influence was reflected when he cut past Danilo’s legs and Ayew pounced to equalize. Despite trailing 3-1, Ghana showed courage to fight back. Unmarked substitute Osman Bukari headed in a Baba Rahman cross and, in the last minute of stoppage time, Inaki Williams caught Costa unawares, sneaking in behind the keeper to send him off. Had the striker not slipped on his way to shoot at an unmarked goal, Ghana would have earned a point as Portugal, often seen as too boring under Santos, were too excited.
However, for most of the game, they looked to fall short by the sum of their sizeable pieces, with the Portuguese possession pattern marred by slow development. Ronaldo stayed on the fringes, waiting for his chance, missing his first two goals but then ensuring he scored as many World Cups in the Premier League this season. Only one of those counts can increase.
If his next destination is still unclear, he may take a long break before heading back to Manchester to pick up his things. He became the fifth footballer to play in five World Cups; the fourth, with a certain inevitability, is Lionel Messi. Now they’ve leveled each other for this World Cup. And, with Portugal already on three points and Argentina absent, Ronaldo looks more likely to play in the knockout stages. He may be unemployed but he can be busy.