A laborious contest turned into a thriller and, cutting it all, Cristiano Ronaldo managed to make the story his own. It was hardly a surprise under the circumstances and it is certainly what the crowd, many of whom were dressed Portugal shirts but a vast band clearly present to see only one man, demanded.
Their loyalty was rewarded with a emphatically converted penalty that marked a moment in history. Ronaldo became the first male player to score in five different World Cups and whether you hate the circus or love the fanaticism and selfishness that make him so excruciatingly tough at 37, it’s a feat no one can’t ignore.
It was no vintage Ronaldo: it was a slower, more frustrated act of tribute, despite carrying Portugal’s only goal threat for three quarters of the game. At his peak he would have fired Ghana with a hat-trick but instead spent the final moments watching in horror from the bench as, after sneaking behind drowsy keeper Diogo Costa to steal the ball, Iñaki Williams stumbled when a sensational equalizer beckoned.
Ronaldo was one to console Costa, clearly shaken by his error, full time. It was a night’s work for a newly unemployed player.
“It’s a week that has finished that chapter,” Ronaldo said of the storm surrounding his departure from Manchester United that engulfed the buildup.
“It’s closed and now I want to start on the right foot. We started, we won, I want to help my team. That’s what he finally did even though the headlines would have looked different if two glaring misses in the first 13 minutes, a free header he planted from a particularly stunning four yards, had proved decisive. A goal after the half-hour mark was properly disallowed for a push, much to the dismay of his home crowd, and until he benefited from a marginal decision he and Portugal had been behind.
Ronaldo just beat the excellent Mohammed Salisu to the ball in the 65th minute, but the competition was only close because, as on several occasions before, he hadn’t been quick. His touch was followed by a snick from Salisu, who was deemed by referee Ismail Elfath to have caught Ronaldo in stride. VAR chose not to intervene and, in fairness, there was no clear and obvious error even though the price was soft.
Ronaldo cared little, anyway, and did the rest.
“It was a beautiful moment,” he said. “It was an important win, we know the first game in these competitions is crucial, but also the world record makes me very proud.” Attendees were treated, amid raucous delight, to his hallmark celebration, but it quickly risked being an exercise in hubris.
Ghana had started cautiously, spending most of the first half playing a flat back five, but gained confidence and were the best team since the restart. They channeled that assurance into an equaliser, the lively Mohammed Kudus centering through the legs of Danilo Pereira from the left for Andre Ayew to exploit.
Otto Addo’s players had been erratic in possession, however, and they were punished twice with the kind of counterattack that Portugal had struggled to put together.
The decisive goals came within seven minutes of Ayew’s leveler and were both created by Bruno Fernandes, who flourished as the game dragged on. João Félix deftly cut in the first after Rahman Baba was unable to cut off Fernandes’ pass: he struggled for Atlético Madrid but it was a timely reminder that Ronaldo could have an heir apparent.
Or maybe he has two. Almost immediately, Ronaldo fired the ball back to Fernandes after a Ghana error, the pair cooperating smarter than recent off-field interactions might have suggested, and his former club-mate moved forward before passing Rafael Leão through. Leão, who had just come on, was touted as a potential star this winter and began to justify the hype with a low, bending finish.
Ronaldo was pulled off to a predictable ovation, as well as equally predictable disgust on his part, and it looked like a victory lap could be in the works. But Ghanaian substitute Osman Bukari put it off with a well-taken header and, had Williams properly rewarded his own initiative in nine minutes of added time, the night would have brought more than one outstanding achievement.
The match had become engrossing out of nowhere and Addo felt he turned his attention to the penalty incident, calling it “a special gift from the referee” and a “really bad decision”. His counterpart, Fernando Santos, could benefit from it.
“Cristiano is a phenomenal legend like many others who have come and gone,” Santos said. “In 50 years we will continue to talk about him.” At the current pace, its ability to set the agenda will endure for decades.