A 37-year-old unemployed man has started his last mission to conquer the world. Clubless but not goalless, Cristiano Ronaldo started off in characteristic fashion. His first goal as a free agent gave him another record as the first player to score in five different World Cups. The milestones are testament to the astonishing longevity of the Portuguese, who is a former Manchester United player for the second time. For Ronaldo, who has extended his own record to 118 international goals, every celebration doubles as confirmation.
And yet Portugal’s winning start was due more to a compatriot whom United had no desire to sack; for a player who often plays better without Ronaldo. After Andre Ayew equalized for Ghana, Bruno Fernandes conjured up two assists in three minutes, one from Ronaldo’s break but none for him. Each was a defense-cutting pass for the faster runner approaching from the flank. Joao Felix restored Portugal’s lead with a gentle stroke. Rafael Leao extended it, hitting the far corner. The fact that Leao has only just arrived and that Felix cost over £100m shows the depth of attacking talent at Fernando Santos’ disposal. For some, this calls into question Ronaldo’s primacy.
For Ronaldo, goals are eloquent enough as an answer, and his eighth in the World Cup – though none have yet been scored in the knockout stage – was a powerful penalty kick drilled over Lawrence Ati-Zigi. It was also lucky, Mohammed Salisu felt he had won the ball when Ronaldo fell to the pitch.
Ronaldo’s performance leads to different conclusions. He was guilty of a few glaring misses – mere aberrations or evidence that his powers were waning? – and after starting the 2018 World Cup with a hat-trick, he could do it again. Portugal’s progression to victory might have been easier had Ronaldo scored twice in the first 12 minutes, but an unusually hard strike cost him his first chance and allowed Ati-Zigi to block. Then, after the incredible jump that became his trademark, one of the best ball heads of his generation tamed the ball wide. When he first secured a confident finish, the goal was rightly disallowed: Ronaldo gained possession as he pushed Alexander Djiku out of the way.
However, when the Portuguese fans started singing his name, Ronaldo responded by scoring within minutes. He illustrated the drama of his week, which was not limited to Tuesday’s announcement that he was leaving United. His punishment meant that a calm first hour gave way to a rather frantic and sometimes nervous finale.
Judge Ismail Elfath played his part. Ronaldo was not alone in benefiting from his generosity. Upset to be booked for a foul on Felix, Alidu Seidu collided head-on with the Atlético Madrid striker, shoving him forward in an act of wanton stupidity but trying to avoid a red card. Had he left earlier, perhaps Ghana would not have scared Portugal.
They finished on offense and started with some sort of defensive excellence to belie their low ranking and troublesome opening to 2022; they left the Africa Cup of Nations with a lone point and an ignominious defeat to the Comoros. However, the appointment of Otto Addo brought improvement, and his persuasiveness was the reason why Salisu signed up for their cause. The Southampton centre-back was unlucky, only his fourth appearance of the match can be remembered from the penalty spot.
Subdued in the first half, Ghana later became more ambitious. Mohammed Kudus was the catalyst as he tossed an arrow up the 20m climb and landed a fierce shot that was stopped by Diogo Costa. His impact was reflected as his reduction went through Danilo’s legs and Ayew rushed to secure parity. Even at 3-1, Ghana showed they had the courage to respond. Unmarked substitute Osman Bukari headered Baby Rahman’s cross, and in the last minute of added time, Inaki Williams surprised Costa by sneaking around the goalkeeper’s back to dispossess him. Had the striker not slipped when he was about to shoot into an unguarded net, Ghana would have been right as Portugal, often considered too dull during the Santos era, had overdosed on excitement.
And yet, for much of the match, they looked less than the sum of their significant parts, with the Portuguese possession pattern undermined by slow build-up. Ronaldo stayed on the sidelines, waiting for his chance, conceding his first two but then making sure he had as many goals in the World Cup as he did in the Premier League this season. Only one of these bills could go up.
If his next destination remains unclear, he may have a longer break before returning to Manchester to retrieve his belongings. He became only the fifth player to play in five World Cups; the fourth, with some inevitability, was Lionel Messi. Now they have one goal per World Cup. And with Portugal already on three points and Argentina none, Ronaldo seems more likely to play in the knockout stages. He may be unemployed, but he may be busy.