Two days after his turbulent departure from Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo will begin Portugal’s World Cup campaign and look to put the events of the last week and a half behind him.
Portugal face Ghana at the 974 Stadium on Thursday, kicking off what could be 37-year-old Ronaldo’s final World Cup – a trophy that has so far eluded him throughout his decorated career.
A successful tournament in Qatar would also allow Ronaldo to continue his break with United after ending his second spell at the club on Tuesday.
It comes after the striker gave a fiery interview to Talk TV in which he said he felt betrayed by United and launched a scathing attack on manager Erik ten Hag.
And with the World Cup underway, Ronaldo has offered assurances that his Portugal team-mates’ focus won’t waver with his brilliant interview time.
“In my life, the best time is my time,” he told reporters on Monday. “I don’t have to think about what other people think. I talk when I want to. The players know me well over the years and know the type of person I am.”
Following the announcement of his departure from Manchester United, Ronaldo was suspended for two matches and fined £50,000 (around $60,000) by the English Football Association (FA) for slapping a mobile phone out of a spectator’s hand earlier this year.
The incident happened after United’s 1-0 defeat against April at Everton. As well as the fine and suspension – which does not apply to the World Cup but will transfer to any new club he joins – Ronaldo has been warned by the FA about his future behaviour.
Portugal are favorites against Ghana with 52 places separating the two teams in the FIFA rankings.
But pedigree and star power don’t seem to count for much at this World Cup, a tournament where underdogs have fared well against stronger opponents.
Saudi Arabia came from behind to beat Argentina 2-1 while Japan did the same against Germany – a clear sign that no team should be taken lightly, nor should any team be complacent.
Having not reached the World Cup quarter-finals since 2006, Portugal have a point to prove in Qatar and arrive at the tournament with considerable energy.
Despite missing Liverpool forward Diogo Jota through injury, the likes of Ronaldo, his old United team-mate Bruno Fernandes and Manchester City stars João Cancelo and Bernardo Silva are all likely to feature on Thursday.
Up against them will be a Ghanaian side that lacks form but is not lacking in quality.
Having been knocked out of the Africa Cup of Nations after a humiliating group stage defeat against Comoros in January, the Black Stars will benefit from the “signings” of striker Inaki Williams and right-back Tariq Lamptey ahead of the tournament.
Williams switched allegiance from Spain earlier this year and Lamptey from England.
Otto Addo – the only part-time coach at the tournament – also has star midfielder Mohammed Kudus and experienced campaigners including Thomas Partey and the Ayew brothers, Jordan and Andre.
Whether Addo, who essentially works as a scout for German side Borussia Dortmund, can make Ghana click remains to be seen.
Also in Group H are Uruguay and South Korea, who play each other at the Education City Stadium on Thursday.
Uruguay are favorites and will benefit from the experience of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez. Liverpool striker Darwin Núñez will also feature in attack, while midfielders Rodrigo Bentancur and Federico Valverde have been in excellent form of late.
Positive news for South Korea is that star player Son Heung-Min has recovered from a damaged eye socket and has been training with a protective face mask this week.
In Thursday’s other match, pre-tournament favorites Brazil and Serbia will be the last two teams to start their tournament when they meet at the Lusail Stadium.
Five-time champions Brazil have arguably the best attacking line-up in the tournament, both in terms of quality and depth.
Neymar Jr – like teammates Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – is looking for his first World Cup trophy, and he will be well supported up front alongside Vinicius Jr. from Real Madrid, Raphinha from Barcelona, and Richarlison from Everton.
But Serbia, who topped their qualifying group ahead of Portugal, will not be dismissed and have plenty of goalscoring prowess in captain Dušan Tadić, Juventus forward Dušan Vlahović, and Fulham forward Aleksandar Mitrovic. However, Vlahović and Mitrovic both picked up injuries ahead of the tournament.
Hoping to reach the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time, Serbia will likely have to battle it out with Switzerland and Cameroon, who meet each other on Thursday, to progress to the last 16 – barring any bad results for Brazil.
But as the World Cup has shown so far, don’t rule out any possibility.
Switzerland vs Cameroon – 5am ET
Uruguay vs. South Korea – 8 a.m. ET
Portugal vs Ghana – 11am ET
Brazil vs Serbia – 2pm ET
US: Fox Sports
UK: BBC or ITV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell Media
South Africa: SABC