A 37-year-old unemployed man began his latest quest to conquer the world. Clubless but not goalless, Cristiano Ronaldo started in trademark fashion. His first goal as a free agent gave him yet another record, as the first player to score in five different World Cups. The milestones are testament to the astonishing longevity of one 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 up as vindication.
And yet Portugal’s winning beginning owed rather more to a compatriot United would not dream of releasing; to a footballer, indeed, who often plays better without Ronaldo. After Andre Ayew had levelled for Ghana, Bruno Fernandes conjured two assists in the space of three minutes, one after a lay-off from Ronaldo, but neither for him. Each was a defence-splitting pass for the quicker runner advancing from the flank. Joao Felix restored Portugal’s lead with a delicate dink. Rafael Leao extended it by angling a shot into the far corner. That Leao had only just come on and that Felix cost over £100 million shows the depth of attacking talent at Fernando Santos’ disposal. For some, it calls Ronaldo’s primacy into question.
For Ronaldo, goals are an eloquent enough answer and his eighth in World Cups – though none have yet come in knockout stages – was an emphatic penalty, drilled over Lawrence Ati-Zigi. It was also a fortunate one, Mohammed Salisu feeling he won the ball as Ronaldo tumbled to the turf.
Ronaldo’s performance lends itself to different conclusions. He was guilty of a couple of glaring misses – mere aberrations or evidence his powers are waning? – and after starting the 2018 World Cup with a hat-trick, he could have done so again. Portugal’s progression to victory could have been rather more straightforward if Ronaldo had struck twice in the first 12 minutes but an uncharacteristically 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 the great headers of a ball of his generation headed tamely wide. When he first supplied an assured finish, the goal was rightly disallowed: Ronaldo had gained possession because he had shoved Alexander Djiku out of the way.
Yet when the Portugal fans launched into a chorus of his name, Ronaldo responded, scoring within minutes. He illustrated the drama of his week was not confined to Tuesday’s announcement that he is leaving United. His penalty meant an uneventful first hour gave way to a rather frantic, and sometimes fractious, finale.
Referee Ismail Elfath played his part. Ronaldo was not alone in benefiting from his generosity. Upset to be booked for a foul on Joao Felix, Alidu Seidu butted heads with the Atletico Madrid forward, thrusting his forward in an act of wanton stupidity, but contriving to avoid a red card. Had he departed early, Ghana perhaps would not have given Portugal such a fright.
They ended up attacking and started with a kind of defensive excellence to bely their lowly ranking and troubled opening to 2022; they exited the African Cup of Nations with a solitary point and an ignominious defeat to Comoros. Yet Otto Addo’s appointment has brought improvement and his persuasive powers were a reason why Salisu has signed up for their cause. The Southampton centre-back was unfortunate just his fourth cap may be remembered for the penalty.
Subdued in the first half, Ghana acquired more ambition thereafter. Mohammed Kudus was the catalyst, arrowing a 20-yard drive just wide and producing a ferocious hit that was stopped by Diogo Costa. His influence was reflected when his cutback went through Danilo’s legs and Ayew pounced to bring parity. Even when 3-1 down, Ghana showed the mettle to respond. The unmarked substitute Osman Bukari headed in Baba Rahman’s cross and, in the last minute of added time, Inaki Williams caught Costa unawares, sneaking back from behind the keeper to dispossess him. Had the forward not slipped when he was about to shoot into an unguarded net, Ghana would have had a point as Portugal, often deemed too dull in the Santos era, were overdosing on excitement.
And yet, for much of the game, they had looked less than the sum of their considerable parts, with a pattern of Portuguese possession undermined by slow build-up. Ronaldo lingered on the fringes, waiting for his opportunity, missing his first two but then ensuring he has as many goals in the World Cup as the Premier League this season. Only one of those tallies could increase.
If his next destination remains unclear, he may have an extended break before returning to Manchester to retrieve 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 level on a goal apiece for this World Cup. And, with Portugal already on three points and Argentina none, Ronaldo looks likelier to play in the knockout stages. He might be unemployed but he could be busy.