Two days after his tumultuous departure from Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo will begin his World Cup campaign with Portugal and will look to put the events of the past week and a half behind him.
Portugal face Ghana at the 974 Stadium on Thursday in what is likely to be the final World Cup for 37-year-old Ronaldo – one that has eluded him so far in his career.
A successful tournament in Qatar would also allow Ronaldo to move on from his messy divorce with United, who 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 Haag.
And with the World Cup kicking off, Ronaldo has ensured his Portugal team-mates’ focus won’t be shaken by his time-bombing interview.
“In my life, the best timing is always my timing,” he told reporters on Monday. “I don’t have to think about what other people think. I speak whenever I want. The players have known me well for years and know who I am.”
After announcing his departure from Manchester United, Ronaldo was banned for two games and fined 50,000 pounds (about $60,000) by the FA earlier this year for slapping a cellphone from a fan.
It happened after United’s 1-0 loss against April at Everton. In addition to the fine and ban – which will not apply at the World Cup but will be carried over to any new club he joins – the FA warned Ronaldo about his future behaviour.
With 52 places in the FIFA rankings, Portugal is strongly favored against Ghana.
But pedigree and star power don’t seem to matter much at this World Cup, a tournament where underdogs have fared well against stronger opponents.
Saudi Arabia beat Argentina 2-1, while Japan did the same against Germany – clear signs that no team should be underestimated and no team should be complacent.
Portugal, who have not reached the World Cup quarter-finals since 2006, have a point to prove in Qatar and come into the tournament with considerable firepower.
Despite the absence of Liverpool forward Diego Jota through injury, the likes of Ronaldo, his old United team-mate Bruno Fernandes, and Manchester City stars Joao Cancelo and Bernardo Silva are all likely to feature on Thursday.
Against them will be a Ghanaian team that is short on form but not lacking in quality.
The Black Stars, who were kicked out of the Africa Cup of Nations after a humiliating group stage defeat to Comoros in January, will benefit from the ‘membership’ of striker Inaki Williams and right-back Tariq Lampeti ahead of the tournament.
Williams switched allegiances from Spain and Lampetti from England earlier this year.
Otto Addo – the only part-time manager in the tournament – also has star midfielder Mohamed Kodos and experienced campaigners including Thomas Partey and the Ayew brothers, Jordan and Andre.
Whether Addo, who primarily works as a scout for German side Borussia Dortmund, can get Ghana to click remains to be seen.
Uruguay and South Korea are also in Group H and will face each other at the City of Education Stadium on Thursday.
Uruguay are favorites and will benefit from the experience of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez. Liverpool striker Darwin Nunes will also feature in attack, while midfielders Rodrigo Bentancor 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 eyeball and has been training this week wearing a face mask.
In other games on Thursday, pre-tournament favorites Brazil and Serbia will be the last two teams to play their tournaments at Lusail Stadium.
Five-time champions Brazil boast the tournament’s best attacking lineup, both in terms of quality and depth.
Neymar Jr – like fellow talismans Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – is in search of his first World Cup trophy and is supported alongside Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior, Barcelona’s Rafinha and Everton’s Richarlison.
But Serbia, who topped their qualifying group ahead of Portugal, will be under no pressure and have plenty of scoring ability in captain Dusan Tadic, Juventus forward Dusan Vlahovic and Fulham defender Aleksandar Mitrovic. However, both Vlahovic and Mitrovic have been injured in the run-up to the tournament.
Serbia, hoping to reach the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time, will likely have to fight off Switzerland and Cameroon, who meet on Thursday, to progress to the last 16 – barring a disastrous result for Brazil.
But as this World Cup has shown so far, don’t rule out any possibility.
Switzerland – Cameroon – 5am ET
Uruguay vs South Korea – 8am ET
Portugal – Ghana – 11am ET
Brazil – Serbia – 14:00 EST
United States: Fox Sports
UK: BBC or ITV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell Media
South Africa: SABC