Fans poured into Stadium 974 to cheer him and the Portugal team he has led for a generation. But mostly him. There may be no more ubiquitous jersey in soccer than Ronaldo’s No. 7, and on Thursday a good portion of that laundry seemed to have congregated inside a temporary arena dropped between a port and the highway to Doha’s international airport.
As much as anything, Portugal fans wanted to see what Ronaldo would do next — and maybe last. He is 37 now, and suddenly unemployed, having chain-sawed a burning bridge with Manchester United this month. The fight has left Ronaldo’s reputation and career exit in flux. But nothing can repair an image and spackle a legacy like the World Cup. And so, on a room-temperature evening steps from the Persian Gulf, Ronaldo took the field against Ghana, and the crowd roared, and he waved, and the crowd roared again, and the cameras locked onto his face and the soccer world turned its gaze his way and everything felt normal again.
The ball, and the game, revolved around Ronaldo, not unexpectedly. And when the scoreless match needed an uncorking midway through the second half, it was Ronaldo, of course, who did the honors. His penalty kick just after the hour mark sent Portugal on its way to what became — after an overflow of late goals — an uneasy 3-2 victory.
When it ended, there was Ronaldo, smiling and shaking hands, moving on to wherever this tournament take him, and wherever he takes Portugal.
“I think Cris likes to work under criticism from everyone,” his teammate Bruno Fernandes told a scrum of reporters afterward. “I pray for all of you to keep doing that because it gets the best of himself when you guys do that.”
He has already made a little soccer history here. Ronaldo’s start against Ghana made him only the fifth man to appear in five World Cups, and his penalty made him the first to score in five of them. And it came with familiar aplomb. After drawing a foul, and the penalty, while racing for a 50-50 ball in the area with Ghana’s big center back, Mohammed Salisu, Ronaldo set the ball on the spot and lined up his shot.
He danced to the left, a bit of sidestepping ballet, drilled the ball high over the right shoulder of goalkeeper Lawrence Ati-Zigi, then ran to the corner to soak in the kind of adulation that he is used to.
But because little comes easy for Portugal at World Cups, his team gave Ronaldo’s goal right back, as André Ayew popped up in the right spot a few minutes later and evened the score for Ghana, the lowest-ranked team in the tournament. Could Portugal follow Argentina and Germany as heavyweight upset victims in the first games of the World Cup?
No. Portugal’s João Félix and Rafael Leão buried shots about two minutes apart, staking Portugal to a two-goal lead and giving Ronaldo a chance to depart to handshakes and hugs. He had barely sat down on the bench, though, when Ghana’s Osman Bukari scored in the 89th minute to pull the underdogs within a goal. The drama flared a few more times, but the scoring ended there.
This will most likely be the last time that Ronaldo and Portugal arrive together at a World Cup. Winning the country’s first title feels possible, as it often has with Ronaldo, but not likely. Hopes have faded with the years, but they have not died. Not yet.
The crowd, heavily weighted for Portugal, squealed a chorus every time Ronaldo touched the ball. It was as if nothing noteworthy had happened in his life, and his career, in the past couple of weeks.
For months, Ronaldo had been a misfit part at Manchester United. He made little secret of his frustration at being relegated to a role as a high-priced substitute, and last month he made headlines by refusing to take the field in a game and, instead, heading for tunnel before the game was even over.
Just before the World Cup began, Ronaldo finally said it all out loud. Speaking on British television to Piers Morgan, he said he had no regard for United’s manager, Erik ten Hag, and that he felt betrayed by the club that he had first joined in 2003, a once-happy marriage that lifted the club to championships and Ronaldo to stardom.
The interview sealed it; United announced the divorce on Tuesday. And, somehow again, Portugal’s World Cup drama was all about Ronaldo.
The question for Portugal, the one that Manchester United just answered, was whether Ronaldo was a help or a hindrance to its chances.
He answered in Stadium 974 by being the most dangerous player on the field.
Scoring felt like Ronaldo’s responsibility, as much as ever. His first big chance came in the 10th minute, when a Ghana turnover and a quick pass from Otávio found Ronaldo in an unexpected meeting with the ball and Ati-Zigi, who smothered the play.
Three minutes later, sizing up a perfect cross, Ronaldo leaped and pushed a header wide. It was his best scoring chance, and it ended with his head in his hands.
Later in the first half, he had an apparent goal waved away immediately when the referee spotted the nudge that separated him from a defender to score it.
Halftime came without a score. Portugal fans swayed from patiently expecting something good in the first half to worrying about something bad in the second.
But Portugal knew none of this would be simple. Under the continued direction of veteran manager Fernando Santos, it found itself in a Group H that featured three tricky teams from three continents.
Ghana was considered an unpredictable opponent, one with talent and some history but caught in a bit of a lull. There are more difficult challenges ahead. South Korea can threaten with Son Heung-min, who has been approved to play after a facial fracture had put his presence in doubt. Uruguay knocked Portugal out of the 2018 World Cup in the round of 16, but it, too, sits in that title-or-bust pressure chamber, unfair as it might be.
But few teams know the pressure of Ronaldo and Portugal. When he was 21, he led his country to the World Cup semifinals in Germany, matching Portugal’s best-ever showing. It felt like a ladder step for a young star. Instead, Portugal has managed nothing better than a round-of-16 appearance since. That last exit, from Russia via Uruguay in 2018, could hardly be pinned on Ronaldo, who scored four goals in four games.
But he is Ronaldo, a mix of legend and celebrity now looking for a way out. He has two more games, at least, to find the way.