Two days after his tumultuous departure from Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo will start his World Cup season with Portugal, looking to put the events of the past week and a half behind him.
Portugal meet Ghana at Stadium 974 on Thursday, opening what will likely be the last World Cup for the 37-year-old Ronaldo – a trophy he has so far eluded throughout his prolific career.
A successful tournament in Qatar would also allow Ronaldo to move away from his messy divorce as United ended his second spell at the club on Tuesday.
It came after the striker gave Talk TV an explosive interview in which he said he felt betrayed by United and launched a scathing attack on manager Erik ten Hag.
And as the World Cup begins, Ronaldo has assured his Portuguese team-mates’ focus will not be shaken by the timing of his bombshell interview.
“In my life, the best timing is always my timing,” he told reporters Monday. “I don’t have to think about what other people think. I speak when I want. The players have known me very well for many years and know what kind of person I am.”
Following the announcement of his Manchester United departure, Ronaldo was banned for two games and fined £50,000 (about US$60,000) by the Football Association (FA) for slapping a mobile phone out of a spectator’s hand earlier this year would have.
The incident came after United’s 1-0 defeat by April at Everton. In addition to the fine and suspension – which will not apply at the World Cup but will be carried over to any new club he joins – Ronaldo has been warned by the FA about his future conduct.
Portugal are heavy favorites against Ghana with 52 places in the FIFA rankings.
But pedigree and star power seem to count for little at this World Cup, a tournament where underdogs have done well against stronger opponents.
Saudi Arabia defeated Argentina 2-1, Japan did the same against Germany – clear signs that no team should underestimate and no side should be complacent.
Portugal, who have not reached the quarter-finals of a World Cup since 2006, have a point to prove in Qatar and come into the tournament with considerable firepower.
Although Liverpool striker Diogo Jota is absent through injury, Ronaldo, his old United team-mate Bruno Fernandes and Manchester City stars João Cancelo and Bernardo Silva are likely to be there on Thursday.
They will face a Ghanaian team who may lack form but are not lacking in quality.
After the Black Stars were eliminated from the Africa Cup of Nations following a humiliating group stage loss to Comoros in January, the Black Stars will benefit from the ‘signings’ of forward Inaki Williams and right-back Tariq Lamptey ahead of the tournament.
Williams switched allegiances from Spain and Lamptey from England earlier this year.
Otto Addo – the tournament’s only part-time coach – will also have star midfielder Mohammed Kudus and veteran players such as Thomas Partey and Ayew brothers Jordan and Andre at their disposal.
Whether Addo, who mainly works as a scout for Borussia Dortmund, can make Ghana click remains to be seen.
Also in Group H are Uruguay and South Korea, who face off at 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 play in attack, while midfielders Rodrigo Bentancur and Federico Valverde have been in excellent form lately.
The 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 games, pre-tournament favorites Brazil and Serbia will be the last two sides to start their tournaments when they meet at the Lusail Stadium.
Five-time champions Brazil have arguably the best attacking lineup of the tournament, both in terms of quality and depth.
Neymar Jr – like his fellow talismans Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – is looking for his first World Cup trophy, and he has plenty of support alongside Real Madrid’s Vinicius Jr, Barcelona’s Raphinha and Everton’s Richarlison.
But Serbia, who topped their qualifying group ahead of Portugal, will be no pushover and with captain Dušan Tadić, Juventus striker Dušan Vlahović and Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic have plenty of scoring chances. However, Vlahović and Mitrovic were both injured before the tournament.
Hoping to reach the last 16 of a World Cup for the first time, Serbia will likely have to face Switzerland and Cameroon, who meet on Thursday to reach the last 16 – barring a disastrous result for Brazil.
But as this World Cup has shown so far, don’t rule out contingencies.
Switzerland vs. Cameroon – 5 a.m. Eastern Time
Uruguay vs South Korea – 8 p.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