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How Portugal Held Off Ghana to Win, 3-2


Fans poured into Stadium 974 to cheer him and the Portugal team he has led for a generation. But mostly him. There could also be no more ubiquitous jersey in soccer than Ronaldo’s No. 7, and on Thursday a very good portion of that laundry appeared to have congregated inside a brief arena dropped between a port and the highway to Doha’s international airport.

As much as anything, Portugal fans desired to see what Ronaldo would do next — and possibly last. He’s 37 now, and suddenly unemployed, having chain-sawed a burning bridge with Manchester United this month. The fight has left Ronaldo’s popularity and profession exit in flux. But nothing can repair a picture and spackle a legacy just like the World Cup. And so, on a room-temperature evening steps from the Persian Gulf, Ronaldo took the sector against Ghana, and the group roared, and he waved, and the group roared again, and the cameras locked onto his face and the soccer world turned its gaze his way and all the pieces felt normal again.

The ball, and the sport, revolved around Ronaldo, not unexpectedly. And when the scoreless match needed an uncorking midway through the second half, it was Ronaldo, in fact, who did the honors. His penalty kick just after the hour mark sent Portugal on its method 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 believe 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 maintain doing that since it gets the perfect of himself if you guys try this.”

He has already made a bit of soccer history here. Ronaldo’s start against Ghana made him only the fifth man to seem in five World Cups, and his penalty made him the primary to attain in five of them. And it got here with familiar aplomb. After drawing a foul, and the penalty, while racing for a 50-50 ball in the world 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 little bit of sidestepping ballet, drilled the ball high over the proper shoulder of goalkeeper Lawrence Ati-Zigi, then ran to the corner to soak within the form of adulation that he’s 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 proper spot a number of minutes later and evened the rating for Ghana, the lowest-ranked team within the tournament. Could Portugal follow Argentina and Germany as heavyweight upset victims in the primary 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 likelihood to depart to handshakes and hugs. He had barely sat down on the bench, though, when Ghana’s Osman Bukari scored within the 89th minute to drag the underdogs inside a goal. The drama flared a number of more times, however the scoring ended there.

This can almost certainly be the last time that Ronaldo and Portugal arrive together at a World Cup. Winning the country’s first title feels possible, because it often has with Ronaldo, but unlikely. Hopes have faded with the years, but they’ve not died. Not yet.

The group, heavily weighted for Portugal, squealed a chorus each time Ronaldo touched the ball. It was as if nothing noteworthy had happened in his life, and his profession, up to now 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 task as a high-priced substitute, and last month he made headlines by refusing to take the sector in a game and, as a substitute, heading for tunnel before the sport was even over.

Just before the World Cup began, Ronaldo finally said all of it 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, one way or the other again, Portugal’s World Cup drama was all about Ronaldo.

The query for Portugal, the one which Manchester United just answered, was whether Ronaldo was a help or a hindrance to its probabilities.

He answered in Stadium 974 by being probably the most dangerous player on the sector.

Scoring felt like Ronaldo’s responsibility, as much as ever. His first big likelihood got here within the tenth minute, when a Ghana turnover and a fast pass from Otávio found Ronaldo in an unexpected meeting with the ball and Ati-Zigi, who smothered the play.

Three minutes later, sizing up an ideal cross, Ronaldo leaped and pushed a header wide. It was his best scoring likelihood, and it ended along with his head in his hands.

Later in the primary half, he had an apparent goal waved away immediately when the referee spotted the nudge that separated him from a defender to attain it.

Halftime got here and not using a rating. Portugal fans swayed from patiently expecting something good in the primary half to worrying about something bad within the second.

But Portugal knew none of this may be easy. 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 a few history but caught in a little bit of a lull. There are tougher challenges ahead. South Korea can threaten with Son Heung-min, who has been approved to play after a facial fracture had put his presence unsure. Uruguay knocked Portugal out of the 2018 World Cup within the round of 16, but it surely, too, sits in that title-or-bust pressure chamber, unfair because it is likely to 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. As a substitute, Portugal has managed nothing higher than a round-of-16 appearance since. That last exit, from Russia via Uruguay in 2018, could hardly be pinned on Ronaldo, who scored 4 goals in 4 games.

But he’s Ronaldo, a combination of legend and celebrity now searching for a way out. He has two more games, a minimum of, to seek out the way in which.

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