Two days after his stormy exit from Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo will begin his World Cup campaign with Portugal and will look to bounce back from the events of the past week and a half.
Portugal face Ghana at the Stadium 974 on Thursday in what is likely to be the 37-year-old Ronaldo’s last World Cup – a trophy that has so far eluded him in his illustrious career.
A successful tournament in Qatar would also allow Ronaldo to move on from his messy split with United, which ended his second spell at the club on Tuesday.
It comes after the striker gave an explosive interview to Talk TV in which he said he felt betrayed by United and launched a scathing attack on manager Erik ten Hag.
As the World Cup approaches, Ronaldo has offered assurances that his Portuguese team-mates will not be distracted by the timing of his explosive interview.
“The best time in my life is always my time,” he told reporters on Monday. “I don’t have to think about what other people think. I speak when I want to. The players have known me very well for many years and know who I am.
After announcing his departure from Manchester United, Ronaldo was handed a two-match ban and fined 50,000 pounds (about $60,000) by the FA for knocking a cellphone out of a fan’s hand earlier this year.
The incident came after United lost 1-0 against April at Everton. In addition to the fine and suspension, which does not apply to the World Cup but will carry over to any new club he joins, the FA warned Ronaldo about his future conduct.
Portugal are heavy favorites against Ghana, with 52 places separating the two sides in the FIFA rankings.
But pedigree and star power seem to matter little at this World Cup, a tournament where smaller players have fared well against stronger opposition.
Saudi Arabia came from behind to beat Argentina 2-1, while Japan did the same against Germany – clear signs that neither team should be underestimated, nor should any team be complacent.
Having not reached the quarter-finals of a World Cup since 2006, Portugal have a point to prove in Qatar and come into the tournament with considerable firepower.
Despite missing Liverpool striker Diogo Jota through injury, Ronaldo, his old United team-mate Bruno Fernandes and Manchester City stars Joao Cancelo and Bernardo Silva are likely to feature on Thursday.
Against them will be a Ghanaian side short on form but not lacking in quality.
Having been knocked out of the African Cup of Nations following a humiliating group stage defeat to Comoros in January, the Black Stars will benefit from the pre-tournament signings of striker Inaki Williams and right-back Tariq Lamptey.
Williams switched allegiance from Spain and Lamptey from England earlier this year.
Otto Addo – the only part-time manager in the tournament – also has star midfielder Mohammed Kudus and experienced campaigners including Thomas Partey and brothers Ayew, Jordan and Andre at his disposal.
Whether Addo, who primarily 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 will 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 Nunez will also play in attack, while midfielders Rodrigo Bentancur and Federico Valverde have been in great form of late.
The positive news for South Korea is that star player Son Heung-Min has recovered from a damaged eye socket and has been training this week wearing a protective mask.
In other games on Thursday, pre-tournament favorites Brazil and Serbia will be the final two teams to kick off the tournaments when they meet at the Lusail Stadium.
Five-time champions Brazil boast arguably the best attacking line-up at the tournament in terms of both quality and depth.
Neymar Jr., like fellow talismans Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, is looking for his first World Cup trophy and will be ably supported alongside Real Madrid’s Vinicius Jr., Barcelona’s Raphinha and Everton’s Richarlison.
But Serbia, who topped their qualifying group ahead of Portugal, will not be overpowered and their captain Dusan Tadic, Juventus striker Dusan Vlahovic and Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic are superb. However, Vlahovic and Mitrovic have been plagued with injuries ahead of the tournament.
Serbia, hoping to reach the knockout stage of the World Cup for the first time, will likely have to battle Switzerland and Cameroon, who meet each other on Thursday, to reach the last 16 barring disastrous results for Brazil.
But as this World Cup has proven so far, don’t rule out any possibility.
Switzerland vs. Cameroon – 5:00 a.m. ET
Uruguay vs. South Korea – 8:00 a.m. ET
Portugal vs. Ghana – 11:00 a.m. ET
Brazil vs. Serbia – 2:00 PM ET
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South Africa: SABC