A 37-year-old unemployed person embarked on his latest quest to conquer the world. Clubless but not goalless, Cristiano Ronaldo started in a characteristic way. His first goal as a free agent gave him another record, becoming the first player to score in five different World Cups. The milestones are a testament to the amazing longevity of the Portuguese, who is a former Manchester United footballer for the second time. For Ronaldo, who extended his own record to 118 international goals, every celebration counts as justification.
And yet Portugal’s winning start owed more to a compatriot United wouldn’t dream of letting go; to a footballer indeed, who often plays better without Ronaldo. After Andre Ayew tied for Ghana, Bruno Fernandes conjured up two assists within three minutes, one after a Ronaldo dismissal, but neither for him. Each was a defensive pass to the faster runner advancing from the flank. Joao Felix restored Portugal’s lead with a delicate gulp. Rafael Leao extended the ball by aiming a shot into the far corner. That Leao had only just come on and that Felix cost more than £100 million shows just how much attacking talent Fernando Santos had at his disposal. For some, it calls into question Ronaldo’s primacy.
For Ronaldo, goals are an eloquent enough answer and his eighth in World Cups – although none have yet reached the knockout stage – was an emphatic penalty, drilled over Lawrence Ati-Zigi. It was also fortunate that Mohammed Salisu felt he had won the ball when Ronaldo tumbled onto the turf.
Ronaldo’s performance lends itself to several conclusions. He was guilty of a few glaring oversights – mere aberrations or evidence that his powers are waning? – and having started the 2018 World Cup with a hat-trick, he could have done it again. Portugal’s progression to victory could have been a little easier if Ronaldo had struck twice in the first 12 minutes, but an unusually heavy touch cost him his first chance and allowed Ati-Zigi to block. Then, after the kind of prodigious leap that has become his trademark, one of his generation’s great headers of a ball tamely headed wide. When he first provided a confident finish, the goal was rightly disallowed: Ronaldo had gained possession for pushing Alexander Djiku aside.
But when the Portuguese fans started chanting his name, Ronaldo responded and scored within minutes. He illustrated that the drama of his week was not limited to Tuesday’s announcement that he is leaving United. His penalty meant that a dull first hour gave way to a rather hectic and at times tricky final.
Referee Ismail Elfath played his role. Ronaldo was not alone in benefiting from his generosity. Angry at being booked for a foul on Felix, Alidu Seidu clashed with the Atletico Madrid striker. Had he left early, Ghana might not have scared Portugal so much.
They eventually attacked and started with a sort of defensive excellence to belie their low ranking and difficult opening to 2022; they exited the African Cup of Nations with a lone run and an embarrassing defeat to the Comoros. Nevertheless, the appointment of Otto Addo has brought improvement and his persuasiveness was a reason why Salisu applied for their cause. The Southampton centre-back was unlucky, only his fourth cap may be remembered for the penalty.
Subdued in the first half, Ghana then got more ambitious. Mohammed Kudus was the catalyst, shooting a 20m drive just wide and producing a savage hit that was stopped by Diogo Costa. His influence showed when his cut went through Danilo’s legs and attacked Ayew to bring parity. Even with a 3-1 deficit, Ghana showed the courage to react. Unmarked substitute Osman Bukari headed in Baba Rahman’s cross and in the last minute of extra time Inaki Williams unexpectedly caught Costa and snuck back from behind the keeper to dispossess him. Had the striker not slipped as he was about to fire into an unguarded net, Ghana would have had a point as Portugal, often seen as too dull in the Santos era, overdosed on excitement.
And yet they looked less than the sum of their considerable parts for much of the match, with a pattern of Portuguese possession undermined by a slow build-up. Ronaldo hung around waiting for his chance, missed his first two but then managed to score as many goals in the World Cup as in the Premier League this season. Only one of those numbers could increase.
If his next destination remains unclear, he may have an extended break before returning to Manchester to collect his belongings. He became only the fifth footballer to play in five World Cups; the fourth, with a certain inevitability, was Lionel Messi. Now they are each tied for this World Cup. And with Portugal already on three points and Argentina none, Ronaldo looks more likely to play in the knockout stages. He may be unemployed, but he may be busy.