Cristiano Ronaldo makes World Cup history, taking centre stage – as always


Thirty-six years have passed since a footballer last captained a nation at a men’s World Cup while not being registered to a club side.

I’m sure you knew the answer to this pub question already, but just in case, he was Bruce Wilson, a Canadian full-back best known for a spell at Toronto Blizzard and this was the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. They were different times, emphasised by the fact Canada’s final group-stage match of that campaign was a defeat against the former USSR.

Cristiano Ronaldo was only born one year earlier and he was still wearing nappies when Wilson’s final World Cup hurrah played out in the summer of ’86.

Here in Doha, however, came the very peculiar sight of a five-time Ballon d’Or winner starting a World Cup as a free agent, unattached, hoping to impress suitors with the January transfer window fast approaching. Around an hour into the game, Sky Sports reported that Ronaldo has interest from the Saudi club Al-Hilal, after previously rejecting a transfer to the Gulf state in the summer.

But this came moments after a very different framing of Ronaldo’s career emerged. Shortly after the hour mark, he became the first male player to score at five consecutive World Cups, which is, whatever we may think of his recent escapades, an utterly extraordinary achievement. His Portugal manager Fernando Santos said afterwards Ronaldo is a player we will talk about in 50 years’ time.

Now aged 37, this will likely be Ronaldo’s final show on the world stage. Even now, in his wilting state, he remains compelling to observe. It was also another of those days where those fatigued by the Ronaldo sideshows might have wondered whether his number is almost up but it was, once again, a demonstration of Ronaldo’s enduring appeal on the global stage. There were supporters in Qatar who had come only to see Ronaldo, oohing and gasping at his tricks, wearing Ronaldo masks over their faces. And, the biggest miracle of all, the stadium even developed a reasonably boisterous atmosphere when he opened the scoring.

After overshadowing the build-up to the World Cup by torching his relationship with Manchester United, Ronaldo this week declared he is “bulletproof and ironclad”.

Yet at Stadium 974 (so-called because it was constructed with 974 shipping containers), the body armour did briefly slip away and some of Ronaldo’s vulnerabilities came to the fore. During the Portuguese national anthem, his eyes appeared to moisten and it stripped away some of that superhero caricature he likes to exhibit.

On the field, Ronaldo’s retreat into mortality has hastened this season. In Manchester United colours, he recorded as many yellow cards as he scored goals — three apiece — and two of his goals were against Sheriff in the Europa League. Ronaldo’s last start came almost three weeks ago, when he played 90 underwhelming minutes in a 3-1 defeat by Aston Villa.

In many ways, this was a performance to encapsulate the Ronaldo we have seen in recent times. Obsessed by the prospect of a goal but exasperated by his own profligacy, Ronaldo cut a frustrated figure until his penalty opened the scoring. Ronaldo’s closest allies in the media, particularly former United players, often say he guarantees goals if the chances are provided but that has not been the evidence of this season and it was repeated here.

Yet for all of the megalomania that can surround Ronaldo, there is something endearing about the childlike thrill he retains when representing and leading his country. Some of it may be guided by self-obsession and his individual will to lift a World Cup, but he also conveys a collective spirit in Portuguese colours.

By the end of this game, Ronaldo, watching from the substitutes’ bench after being taken off on 88 minutes, was in an orange bib, directing matters backstage behind the head coach Fernando Santos in the dugout.

It was not overly surprising, given his lack of action and the off-field distractions, that the 37-year-old should begin this game a little rusty. His first contribution was a late challenge that might have earned a booking. He did look the most likely Portuguese player to score, even as chances he might previously have gobbled up passed him by.

When through on goal early on, his first touch was loose and this allowed Ghana goalkeeper Lawrence Ati-Zigi to smother the opportunity. Ronaldo then reminded us of his enduring physical capabilities, soaring highest, hanging in the air, but heading wide of the goal. There were reminders of his waning powers, notably as he appeared slow to get onto one Bruno Fernandes pass, and then lacked the rapid change of pace to trick his way past an opponent, meaning a shot was blocked.

As the early chances went awry, the match drifted into a period of nothingness. A Joao Felix cross was overhit but Ronaldo raised his arm in appreciation. At half-time, wearing a frown, the captain was the first Portugal player down the tunnel.

Eventually, Ronaldo’s moment came, even if it was highly controversial when he nipped in front of Ghana defender Mohammed Salisu and earned a penalty. Video replays suggested the Southampton defender may have got a touch on the ball but there was no review. Ronaldo buried the penalty and he sprinted to the corner of the stadium, dazzled the crowd with his trademark Siu celebration, and he had the added bonus of performing his pirouette in front of a draped flag of Lionel Messi. Ronaldo may divide opinion across the globe but among the Portugal squad, he retains his elevated status and the substitutes in bibs dashed down the touchline to mob their leader.

The Ghana manager Otto Addo was less impressed. He thought his player won the ball and could not believe VAR did not review the decision. “I don’t know whether VAR was not paying attention,” he said. “If you look at the replay, we played the ball. It was actually a foul against us.”

Addo sought a meeting with the referee Ismail Elfath for an explanation on the decision and the failure of VAR to intervene, but said, “I tried and asked some people from FIFA if I could speak to the referee in a calm and quiet way. They said he was in a meeting and not possible.”

Asked about Ronaldo’s performance, Addo said, “If somebody scores a goal, congratulations. But this was really a gift. A special gift from the referee.”

In the stadium, there was great joy. Supporters sang their hero’s name and a football match broke out, with Ronaldo’s goal the first of five in the final half-hour. That single strike from the penalty spot was enough to earn the man of the match award, despite his former Manchester United team-mate Bruno Fernandes creating two goals and emerging as the standout player on the night.

As man of the match, Ronaldo was obliged to attend a press conference afterwards, which all felt rather exciting after his recent dramatic appearances. This time, though, his showing lasted only two minutes and 12 seconds. There was time for two questions and one of those was by the FIFA mediator inviting him to reflect on scoring at five World Cups. Ronaldo said it was “beautiful”, a “world record” and he was rightfully proud. One question was then permitted to a Ghanian journalist, who dropped Manchester United’s name into the fray. Ronaldo said “the chapter is closed”, adding “it is done”.

As he passed through the mixed zone afterwards — the area where journalists can ask players to stop for an interview — grown men and women from the media leaned over the barriers to block his path, pleading for pictures. “Please! This is my dream!” said one of those present.

Out on the field, attention for Ronaldo was never far away, even as younger Portugal talents like Fernandes, Joao Felix and Rafael Leao demonstrated their talent later on. Even the best moments for Ghana related back to Ronaldo, as Osman Bukhari, who scored Ghana’s second goal in the 89th minute, celebrated his header by wheeling away and performing his own “Siu” celebration to imitate Ronaldo.

Ronaldo, by then watching from the sidelines after being substituted a minute earlier, raised an arm in frustration. He then performed his assistant manager act, which brought to mind his breathless gesticulations from the sidelines during Portugal’s victory over France in the Euro 2016 final.

At the final whistle, Ronaldo was back centre stage, on the pitch, in intense conversation with the Portugal goalkeeper Diogo Costa, whose lapse of concentration very nearly cost Portugal two points when Inaki Williams crept up behind him and pinched the ball before slipping at the final moment.

To some observers, Ronaldo rebuked his team-mate. To others, it was an act of consolation. As ever, his actions were open to interpretation. And once again, you could not take your eyes off him.

(Top photo: Visionhaus//Getty Images)


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