Two days after his turbulent departure from Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo will begin his World Cup season with Portugal and look to put the events of the last week and a half behind him.
Portugal take on Ghana at Stadium 974 on Thursday, kicking off what will likely be the 37-year-old Ronaldo’s last World Cup, a trophy which has so far eluded him over the course of his eventful career.
A successful tournament in Qatar would also allow Ronaldo to get over his messy divorce with United which ended his second spell at the club on Tuesday.
It came 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.
And with the World Cup kicking off, Ronaldo has ensured that the attention of his Portuguese team-mates won’t be rattled by the timing of his bombshell interview.
“In my life, the best moment is always my timing,” he told reporters on 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 departure from Manchester United, Ronaldo was suspended for two matches and fined £50,000 (about $60,000) by the English Football Association (FA) for slapping a mobile phone out of a spectator’s hand earlier in the game. year.
The incident occurred after United’s 1-0 defeat by April at Everton. In addition to the fine and suspension – which does not apply to 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 the big favorites against Ghana with 52 places separating the two teams in the FIFA rankings.
But pedigree and star power seem to count for little in this World Cup, a tournament where underdogs have fared well against more powerful opponents.
Saudi Arabia came from behind to beat Argentina 2-1, while Japan did the same against Germany – clear signals that no team should be underestimated, nor should any team indulge in complacency.
Not reaching the quarter-finals of a World Cup since 2006, Portugal have something to prove in Qatar and come into the tournament with plenty of firepower.
Despite the absence of Liverpool striker 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 likely to be in attendance on Thursday.
Against them will be a Ghanaian side short on form but with no shortage of quality.
Expelled from the Africa Cup of Nations after a humiliating group stage defeat by the Comoros in January, the Black Stars will benefit from the ‘signs’ of striker Inaki Williams and right-back Tariq Lamptey ahead of the tournament.
Williams switched alliances from Spain earlier this year and Lamptey from England.
Otto Addo – the only part-time manager in the tournament – also has star midfielder Mohammed Kudus and seasoned activists including Thomas Partey and the Ayew brothers, Jordan and Andre at his disposal.
Whether Addo, who works mainly as a scout for German side Borussia Dortmund, can convince Ghana to 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 the favorites and will benefit from the experience of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez. Liverpool striker Darwin Núñez will also be up front, while midfielders Rodrigo Bentancur and Federico Valverde have been in excellent form of late.
The good news for South Korea is that star player Son Heung-Min has recovered from a damaged eye socket and has been training in a protective mask this week.
In Thursday’s other fixtures, pre-tournament favorites Brazil and Serbia will be the final two sides to kick off their tournaments when they meet at Lusail Stadium.
The five-times champion of Brazil undoubtedly boasts the best offensive formation of the tournament, both in terms of quality and depth.
Neymar Jr – like fellow talismans Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – is on the hunt for his first World Cup trophy, and will be ably supported ahead alongside Real Madrid’s Vinicius Jr., Barcelona’s Raphinha and Everton’s Richarlison.
But Serbia, who topped their qualifying group ahead of Portugal, won’t be failures and have plenty of scoring 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 a World Cup for the first time, Serbia will likely have to take on Switzerland and Cameroon, who meet on Thursday, to reach the round of 16, barring disastrous results for Brazil.
But as this World Cup has shown so far, we are not ruling out any eventuality.
Switzerland vs Cameroon – 5:00 am Eastern Time
Uruguay vs. South Korea – 8:00am ET
Portugal vs Ghana – 11am ET
Brazil vs. Serbia – 2pm ET
United States: Fox Sports
UK: BBC or ITV
Brazil: Sports TV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
South Africa: SABC