Two days after his turbulent departure from Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo will begin his World Cup campaign with Portugal and will be hoping to put the events of the past week and a half behind him.
Portugal face Ghana at the 974 Stadium on Thursday, kicking off what could be 37-year-old Ronaldo’s final World Cup – the one that has eluded him so far in his decorated career.
A successful tournament in Qatar will allow Ronaldo to move on from his messy divorce as United end his second spell at the club on Tuesday.
It came after the forward gave an explosive interview to talk TV saying he felt betrayed by United and launched a scathing attack on manager Erik ten Haag.
As the World Cup kicks off, Ronaldo has made sure his Portuguese team-mates won’t be distracted by the timing of his bombshell interview.
“The best time of my life is always my time,” he told reporters on Monday. “I don’t need to think about what other people think. I talk when I want. The players have known me well for many years and know what kind of person I am.
After announcing his departure from Manchester United, Ronaldo was handed a two-match ban and fine of 50,000 pounds (about $60,000) by the English Football Association (FA) earlier this year for slapping a mobile phone in the hand of a fan.
The incident followed United’s 1-0 defeat against April at Everton. On top of the fine and suspension – which will not apply to the World Cup but will be transferred to any new club he joins – Ronaldo has been warned by the FA about his future behaviour.
Portugal, who are allocated 52 places in the FIFA rankings, are strong favorites against Ghana.
But pedigree and star power seem to count for little in this World Cup, a tournament where weaker players have done well against stronger opponents.
Saudi Arabia came from behind to beat Argentina 2-1 and Japan did the same against Germany – clear signs that neither team should be underestimated and neither team complacent.
Portugal, who have not reached the quarter-finals of a World Cup since 2006, have a point to prove in Qatar and come into the tournament with considerable firepower.
Ronaldo, his former United team-mate Bruno Fernandes and Manchester City stars Joao Cancelo and Bernardo Silva are likely to feature on Thursday, despite Liverpool missing forward Diogo Jota through injury.
A Ghanaian team will compete against them.
The Black Stars, who crashed out of the Africa Cup of Nations after a humiliating group stage defeat to Comoros in January, will benefit from the pre-tournament “signings” of forward Inaki Williams and right-back Tariq Lamptey.
Williams switched allegiance from Spain and England to Lamptey earlier this year.
Otto Ado – the tournament’s only part-time coach – also has experienced campaigners including star midfielders Mohamed Kudus and Thomas Partey and the Ives brothers Jordan and Andre.
It remains to be seen whether Addo, who mainly works as a scout for German side Borussia Dortmund, can make the Ghanaian click.
Group H also features Uruguay and South Korea, who face 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 Nunez also features in attack, while midfielders Rodrigo Bentancur and Federico Valverde have been impressive of late.
The positive news in South Korea is that star player Son Heung-Min has recovered from a damaged eye socket and is training this week wearing a protective face mask.
In other matches on Thursday, pre-tournament favorites Brazil and Serbia will be the last two teams to open their tournaments when they meet at the Lusail Stadium.
Five-time champions Brazil boast arguably 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 supported up front by Real Madrid’s Vinicius Jr., Barcelona’s Raphinha and Everton’s Richarlison.
But Serbia, who topped their qualifying group ahead of Portugal, are no pushovers and have plenty of goalscoring talent from captain Dusan Tadic, Juventus forward Dusan Vlahovic and Fulham forward Aleksandar Mitrovic. However, Vlahović and Mitrovic were both injured before the tournament.
Serbia, hoping to reach the knockout stages of a World Cup for the first time, will have to battle to reach the last 16 with Switzerland and Cameroon, who face each other on Thursday – barring any disastrous results for Brazil.
But as this World Cup has shown so far, don’t rule out any event.
Switzerland vs. Cameroon – 5 a.m. ET
Uruguay vs. South Korea – 1:00 a.m. 8 ET
Portugal vs Ghana – 10am 11 ET
Brazil vs. Serbia – 5 p.m. 2. ET
United States: Fox Sports
UK: BBC or ITV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell Media
South Africa: SABC