Two days after his turbulent departure from Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo will begin his World Cup campaign with Portugal and look to put the events of the past week and a half behind him.
Portugal take on Ghana at the 974 Stadium on Thursday in what is likely to be the last World Cup for the 37-year-old Ronaldo – a trophy that has so far eluded him throughout his career.
A successful tournament in Qatar would also allow Ronaldo to continue his messy divorce from United, having ended his second spell at the club on Tuesday.
It comes 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 Hag.
And with the World Cup underway, Ronaldo has offered assurances that his Portugal team-mates’ focus will not be shaken by the timing of his 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 when I want. The players have known me very well for many years and know the type of person I am.”
Following the announcement of his departure from Manchester United, Ronaldo was suspended for two games and fined 50,000 pounds (about $60,000) by the English Football Association (FA) for throwing a mobile phone out of a spectator’s hand earlier this year.
The incident followed United’s 1-0 defeat to April at Everton. Along with the fine and suspension – which does not apply at the World Cup but will be carried over to any new club he joins – Ronaldo has been warned by the FA about his future behaviour.
Portugal are heavy favorites against Ghana with 52 places separating the sides in the FIFA rankings.
But pedigree and star power seem to count for little at this World Cup, a tournament where underdogs have fared well against stronger opponents.
Saudi Arabia came from behind to beat 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 World Cup quarter-finals since 2006, Portugal have a point to prove in Qatar and arrive at the tournament with considerable firepower.
Despite missing Liverpool striker Diogo Jota through injury, Ronaldo, his old United team-mate Bruno Fernandes and Manchester City stars João Cancelo and Bernardo Silva are likely to feature on Thursday.
Against them will be an out-of-form Ghana team but no shortage of quality.
Having been kicked out of the Africa Cup of Nations following a humiliating group stage defeat to Comoros in January, the Black Stars will benefit from the “signings” of striker Inaki Williams and right-back Tariq Lamptey ahead of the tournament.
Williams switched allegiance from Spain and Lamptey from England earlier this year.
Otto Addo – the tournament’s only part-time coach – also has at his disposal star midfielder Mohammed Kudus and experienced campaigners including Thomas Partey and the Ayew brothers, Jordan and Andre.
Whether Addo, who mainly works as a scout for German team Borussia Dortmund, can make Ghana click remains to be seen.
Group H also includes Uruguay and South Korea, who will 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 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 this week wearing a face mask.
In Thursday’s other games, pre-tournament favorites Brazil and Serbia will be the last two teams to start their tournaments when they meet at the Lusail Stadium.
Five-time champions Brazil boast the best attacking line-up 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 will be ably supported by 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 obstacle and have plenty of goalscoring skills in captain Dusan Tadic, Juventus forward Dusan Vlahovic and Fulham frontman Aleksandar Mitrovic. However, Vlahović and Mitrović were worried about injuries ahead of the tournament.
Hoping to reach the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time, Serbia will likely have to contend with Switzerland and Cameroon, who meet on Thursday, to reach 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 – 11:00 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