DOHA, Qatar — Cristiano Ronaldo’s fifth World Cup sprung to life, for reasons good and controversial, over a frantic half-hour here at Stadium 974 on Thursday night.
After 60 minutes of scoreless soccer, Portugal erupted for a 3-2 win over Ghana. The play that triggered the madness, though, was one that Ghanaian coach Otto Addo called “a special gift from the referee.”
It was a penalty that Ronaldo won and converted — but should it have been one? “Why?” Addo questioned. “Because it's Ronaldo or something?" The Portuguese star stretched for a ball alongside Ghanaian defender Mohammed Salisu and both appeared to contact it.
PENALTY FOR PORTUGAL
Do you agree with the call? pic.twitter.com/ZYTaNTlnfE
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 24, 2022
"We played the ball,” Addo said. But Ismael Elfath, the American referee, pointed to the penalty spot. His video assistant didn’t intervene. Ronaldo converted the spot kick at the 65th minute, and became the first man to score in five World Cups, and with that, the eruption began.
Andre Ayew equalized eight minutes later. Joao Felix and Rafael Leao, the two young attackers who’ll replace Ronaldo someday, sent a pro-Portuguese crowd into raptures with two goals in less than three minutes, which seemingly put the game away.
But Ghana responded, yet again, in the 89th minute. Osman Bukari pulled a goal back, and wheeled away toward the corner flag, and hit Ronaldo’s trademark “SIIIUUU” celebration.
“A little bit crazy,” his teammate Antoine Semenyo said of Bukari’s celebration postgame.
The rest of his teammates, though, snatched the ball and sprinted back toward the center circle. They had one minute of the 90 plus nine minutes of stoppage time to get a third.
And in one of the last of those minutes, at the end of a bonkers half, they nearly got it. After an attack had fizzled out into the hands of Portugal goalkeeper Diogo Costa, Inaki Williams snuck behind him unseen. Costa dropped the ball to play it long. Williams pounced, and sent Portuguese hearts into mouths ever so briefly.
But he slipped at the vital moment. Portuguese defenders recovered. And the favorites held on for three points.
In the aftermath, Portuguese chatter centered on Ronaldo, who, at the end of a messy two weeks, could finally let his soccer do the talking. For most of his 87 minutes, he’d looked slow and anything but sharp. The goal, though, made him a somewhat baffling choice for man of the match.
Which, in turn, made him FIFA’s choice for the post-match news conference. "This chapter is closed after this week,” he said when ask about the controversy surrounding his explosive interview and subsequent split with Manchester United. “It is done."
Ghanaian chatter, though, centered in part on the penalty. Players were reticent. “It's a dodgy one,” Semenyo said. “But, I don't know.”
“I think you saw,” defender Tariq Lamptey said when asked by a reporter. “You can give your opinion.”
Addo, the coach, did share his. He said he asked to speak with Elfath, the referee, “in a calm and quiet way.” He said he was told by FIFA officials that Elfath was in a meeting and unavailable.
“I don’t know what they are doing, whether they were not paying attention,” he said of the refereeing team. "Whether the VAR wasn’t paying attention. It was just incredible.”
“Up to the penalty, everything was possible,” he added. “Then the game got a little bit wild.”