Two days after his tumultuous departure from Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo will begin his World Cup campaign with Portugal as he tries to put the events of the last week and a half behind him.
Portugal take on Ghana at Stadium 974 on Thursday in what is likely to be 37-year-old Ronaldo’s last World Cup – a trophy that has so far eluded him during his decorated career.
A successful tournament in Qatar will also allow Ronaldo to move on from his messy divorce 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 assured that the focus of his Portuguese teammates 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 talk when I want to. The players have known me very well for many years and know what type of person I am.”
After announcing his departure from Manchester United, Ronaldo was suspended for two matches and fined £50,000 (about $60,000) by the FA for slapping a mobile phone out of a spectator’s hand earlier this year.
The incident came after United’s 1-0 defeat at Everton in April. On top of the fine and suspension – which does not apply at the World Cup but will be transferred to any new club he joins – Ronaldo has been warned by the FA about his future conduct.
Portugal are strong favorites against Ghana with 52 places separating the teams in FIFA’s rankings.
But pedigree and star power seem to count for little in this World Cup, a tournament in which minors have done well against stronger opponents.
Saudi Arabia came from behind to defeat Argentina 2-1 while Japan did the same against Germany – clear signs that no team should be underestimated, nor should any team indulge in complacency.
Having not reached the quarter-finals of a World Cup since 2006, Portugal have a point to prove in Qatar and arrive at the tournament with considerable firepower.
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 are all likely to feature on Thursday.
Against them, a Ghana side will be short on form but with no shortage of quality.
After being kicked out of the Africa Cup of Nations following a humiliating group stage defeat to the Comoros in January, the Black Stars will benefit from the pre-tournament “signings” of forward Inaki Williams and right-back Tariq Lamptey.
Williams switched from Spain and Lamptey from England earlier this year.
Otto Addo – the only part-time coach at 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 primarily works as a scout for German side Borussia Dortmund, can make Ghana click remains to be seen.
Also in Group H are Uruguay and South Korea, who face 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 forward Darwin Núñez will also feature in attack, while midfielders Rodrigo Bentancur and Federico Valverde have been in excellent form of late.
The positive news for South Korea is that star player Son Heung-Min has recovered from a damaged eye socket and trained in a protective face mask this week.
In Thursday’s other matches, pre-tournament favorites Brazil and Serbia will be the final two teams to get their tournaments underway when they meet at the Lusail Stadium.
Five-time champions Brazil boast arguably the best attacking team in 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 will be backed up front along with 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 have plenty of effectiveness in captain Dušan Tadić, Juventus forward Dušan Vlahović and Fulham forward Aleksandar Mitrovic. However, Vlahović and Mitrovic both suffered injuries before the tournament.
Hoping to reach the knockout stage of a World Cup for the first time, Serbia will likely have to battle Switzerland and Cameroon, who face each other on Thursday, to reach the round of 16 – barring any disastrous results for Brazil.
But as this World Cup has shown so far, don’t rule out any eventuality.
Switzerland vs Cameroon – 05:00 Eastern Time
Uruguay vs. South Korea – 8 a.m. ET
Portugal vs. Ghana – 11 a.m. ET
Brazil vs. Serbia – 2:00 PM ET
USA: Fox Sports
UK: BBC or ITV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell Media
South Africa: SABC