Two days after his acrimonious exit from Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo will begin his World Cup campaign with Portugal and look to put the events of the last week and a half behind him.
Portugal face Ghana at the 974 Stadium on Thursday in what will be the 37-year-old Ronaldo’s final World Cup start – a trophy that has eluded him so far in his decorated career.
A successful tournament in Qatar would also allow Ronaldo to end his turbulent relationship with United which ended his second spell at the club on Tuesday.
It came after the forward 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 as the World Cup gets under way, Ronaldo has offered assurances that the attention of his Portuguese teammates will not be swayed by the timing of his bombshell interview.
“In my life, the best time is always my time,” he told reporters on Monday. “I don’t need to think about what other people think. I speak when I want. The players have known me really well for many years and the kind of person I am.”
After announcing his departure from Manchester United, Ronaldo was suspended for two games and fined £50,000 (about $60,000) by the FA earlier this year for throwing a mobile phone at a fan.
The incident took place after United’s 1-0 defeat against Everton in April. Following the ban and suspension – which will not apply to the World Cup but will be transferred to a new club he joins – Ronaldo has been warned by the FA about his future behaviour.
Portugal is a strong favorite against Ghana in the FIFA ranking with 52 places.
But in this World Cup, a tournament where underdogs have fared well against stronger opponents, star power seems to be underestimated.
Saudi Arabia came from behind to beat Argentina 2-1, Japan did the same against Germany – clear signs that no team should be underestimated, nor should any team be complacent.
Not having reached the World Cup quarter-finals since 2006, Portugal have a point to prove in Qatar and come into the tournament with considerable momentum.
Despite missing Liverpool forward Diogo Jota through injury, the likes of Ronaldo, his old United team-mate Bruno Fernandes, and Manchester City stars João Cancelo and Bernardo Silva will all be in action on Thursday.
Against them will be a Ghana team in short form but lacking in quality.
After being knocked out of the Africa Cup of Nations by defeat against 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 moved from Spain and Lamptey from England earlier this year.
Otto Addo – the only part-time coach in the tournament – also has star midfielder Mohammed Kudus and experienced campaigners including Thomas Partey and the Ayew brothers, Jordan and Andre at his disposal.
Whether Addo, who mainly works as a scout for German team Borussia Dortmund, can make Ghana click remains to be seen.
Also in Group H are Uruguay and South Korea, who 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 Núñez will also feature in attack, while midfielders Rodrigo Bentancur and Federico Valverde have been in fine form recently.
The positive news for South Korea is that star player Son Heung-Min has recovered from an injured eye socket and has been training in a protective face mask this week.
In Thursday’s other games, Brazil and pre-tournament favorites Serbia will be the last two teams to win their respective tournaments when they meet at the Lusail Stadium.
Five-time champions Brazil boast arguably the best attacking line in the tournament, both in terms of quality and depth.
Neymar Jr – like fellow talismans Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – is looking for his first World Cup trophy, and he will be supported up front by 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 deterred and have plenty of scoring talent in captain Dušan Tadić, Juventus forward Dušan Vlahović, and Fulham forward Aleksandar Mitrovic. However, Vlahović and Mitrovic were both injured before the tournament.
Hoping to reach the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time, Serbia are likely to have to battle it out with Switzerland and Cameroon, who face each other on Thursday, to reach the last 16 – any bad outcome for Brazil. there is no
But as this World Cup has shown so far, no events are ruled out.
Switzerland vs Cameroon – 05:00 EST
Uruguay vs South Korea – 8am ET
Portugal vs Ghana – 11am ET
Brazil vs Serbia – 2pm ET
USA: Fox Sports
UK: BBC or ITV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell Media
South Africa: SABC