Fans flocked to Stadium 974 to cheer on him and the Portugal team he has captained for a generation. But especially him. There is perhaps no shirt more ubiquitous in football than Ronaldo’s No 7, and on Thursday much of that laundry seemed to have gathered in a temporary arena between a port and the highway leading at Doha International Airport.
As much as anything, Portugal fans wanted to see what Ronaldo would do next – and maybe last. He is now 37 and suddenly out of work, having chainsawed a burning bridge with Manchester United this month. The fight left Ronaldo’s reputation and career exit in turmoil. But nothing can repair an image and tarnish a legacy like the World Cup. And so, on a room-temperature evening just steps from the Arabian Gulf, Ronaldo took the field against Ghana, and the crowd roared, and he waved, and the crowd roared again, and the cameras went locked on his face and the world of football turned his gaze in his direction and everything was back to normal.
The ball and the game revolved around Ronaldo, unsurprisingly. And when the scoreless game required an uncorking midway through the second half, it was of course Ronaldo who did the honours. His penalty just after the hour mark sent Portugal on their way to what became – after a late goal flurry – a tough 3-2 victory.
At the end there was Ronaldo, smiling and shaking hands, moving wherever this tournament took him and wherever he took Portugal.
“I think Cris enjoys working under everyone’s criticism,” teammate Bruno Fernandes told a scrum of reporters afterwards. “I pray you all keep doing this because it gets the best of itself when you do this.”
He has already made a little history of football here. Ronaldo’s departure against Ghana made him only the fifth man to feature in five World Cups, and his penalty made him the first to score in five of them. And he came with familiar aplomb. After taking a foul and the penalty, as he raced for a 50-50 ball into the box with Ghana’s great central defender, Mohammed Salisu, Ronaldo placed the ball on the spot and lined up his shot.
He danced to the left, dodging a bit of ballet, drilled the ball high over goalkeeper Lawrence Ati-Zigi’s right shoulder, then raced around the corner to soak up the kind of adulation he’s used to.
But as nothing is easy for Portugal at the World Cups, his side gave away Ronaldo’s goal, as Andre Ayew appeared in the right place minutes later and leveled the score for Ghana, the team lowest ranked in the tournament. Could Portugal follow Argentina and Germany as upset heavyweight casualties in early World Cup matches?
No. Portugal’s João Félix and Rafael Leão buried shots about two minutes apart, giving Portugal a two-goal lead and giving Ronaldo a chance to walk away as they shook hands and kissed. He had barely sat on the bench when Ghana’s Osman Bukari scored in the 89th minute to bring the underdogs within one goal. The drama, however, ended there.
This will most likely be the last time Ronaldo and Portugal arrive together at a World Cup. Winning the country’s first title seems possible, as it often does with Ronaldo, but unlikely. Hopes have faded over the years, but they have not died. Not yet.
The crowd, heavily weighted for Portugal, shouted a chorus every time Ronaldo touched the ball. It was as if nothing remarkable had happened in his life and career in the past two weeks.
For months, Ronaldo had been a misfit at Manchester United. He did little to hide his frustration at being relegated to a high-priced substitute role, and last month he made headlines by refusing to take the field in a game and instead heading to the tunnel before the match is even over.
Just before the start of the World Cup, Ronaldo finally said it all out loud. Speaking to UK TV Piers Morgan, he said he had no regard for United manager Erik ten Hag and felt betrayed by the club he first joined times in 2003, a once happy marriage that propelled the club to championships and Ronaldo to stardom.
The talk sealed it; United announced the divorce on Tuesday. And, somehow, the World Cup drama in Portugal was all about Ronaldo.
The question for Portugal, the one Manchester United have just answered, was whether Ronaldo was a help or a hindrance to their chances.
He responded to Stadium 974 by being the most dangerous player on the pitch.
Scoring was more than ever Ronaldo’s responsibility. His first big chance came in the 10th minute, when a turnover from Ghana and a quick pass from Otávio found Ronaldo in an unexpected encounter with the ball and Ati-Zigi, who stifled play.
Three minutes later, gauging a perfect cross, Ronaldo leaped up and poked a wide header. It was his best chance to score, and it ended with his head in his hands.
Later in the first half, he signaled an apparent goal immediately when the referee spotted the nudge that separated him from a defender to score it.
Halftime came without a score. Portuguese fans went from patiently waiting for something good in the first half to worrying about something bad in the second.
But Portugal knew none of this would be easy. Under the continued guidance of veteran manager Fernando Santos, he found himself in a Group H that included three tricky teams from three continents.
Ghana were seen as an unpredictable opponent with talent and some history but caught in a lull. Tougher challenges lie ahead. South Korea can threaten with Son Heung-min, who was cleared after a facial fracture put his presence in doubt. Uruguay knocked Portugal out of the 2018 World Cup in the Round of 16, but they also find themselves in that title or bust pressure chamber, unfair as that may be.
But few teams know the pressure of Ronaldo and Portugal. At 21, he led his country to the semi-finals of the World Cup in Germany, equaling Portugal’s best performance. It felt like a ladder step for a young star. Instead, Portugal have managed nothing better than a Round of 16 appearance since. That last outing, from Russia via Uruguay in 2018, could hardly be attributed to Ronaldo, who scored four goals in four games.
But it is Ronaldo, a mix of legend and celebrity who is now looking for a way out. He still has two games left, at least, to find the way.