Two days after his turbulent departure from Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo will begin his World Cup campaign with Portugal looking to put the events of the past week and a half behind him.
Portugal face Ghana at Stadium 974 on Thursday, kicking off what will likely be 37-year-old Ronaldo’s final World Cup – a trophy that has so far eluded him over the course of his decorated career.
A successful tournament in Qatar would also allow Ronaldo to move on from his Messi divorce with United after ending his second spell at the club on Tuesday.
It came after the forward 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 as the World Cup gets under way, Ronaldo has offered assurances that his Portuguese teammates’ focus will not be shaken by the timing of his bombshell 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 know me really 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 (around $60,000) by the English Football Association (FA) for slapping a mobile phone from a spectator’s hand earlier this year.
The incident came after United’s 1-0 loss against April at Everton. On top of the fine and suspension – which does not apply at the World Cup but will be transferred to any new club he joins – Ronaldo has been warned by the FA about his future conduct.
Portugal are the strong favorites against Ghana with 52 places separating the sides in the FIFA rankings.
But pedigree and star power appear to be in short supply at the World Cup, a tournament in which underdogs fare well against powerful opponents.
Saudi Arabia came from behind to defeat Argentina 2-1 while Japan did the same against Germany – clear signs that no team should be underestimated, and no team should indulge in complacency.
Having not reached the quarterfinals of a World Cup since 2006, Portugal have a point to prove in Qatar and arrive at the tournament with considerable firepower.
Despite missing Liverpool forward Diogo Jota through injury, the likes of Ronaldo, his old United teammate Bruno Fernandes and Manchester City stars João Cancelo and Bernardo Silva are all likely to feature on Thursday.
Against them will be a Ghana team short on form but without any lack of quality.
After a humiliating group stage defeat to Comoros in January, the Black Stars will benefit from the post-tournament signings of striker Inaki Williams and right-back Tariq Lampty.
Williams switched allegiances from Spain earlier this year and Lamptey from England.
Otto Addo – the only part-time coach in the tournament – also had to remove star midfielder Mohammed Qudus 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 get Ghana to click remains to be seen.
Also in Group H are Uruguay and South Korea, who play on Thursday at the Education City Stadium.
Uruguay are the favorites and will benefit from the experience of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez. Liverpool forward Darwin Núñez will also feature in the 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 has been training in a protective face mask this week.
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 Lucille Stadium.
Five-time champions Brazil boast arguably the best attacking line 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 lined up alongside Real Madrid’s Vinicius Jr, Barcelona’s Rafinha and Everton’s Richarlison.
But Serbia, who top their qualifying group ahead of Portugal, will be no pushover and have plenty of goals in captain Dušan Tadić, Juventus forward Dušan Vlahović and Fulham front man Aleksandar Mitrovic. However, Vlahović and Mitrovic both picked up injuries before the tournament.
Hoping to reach the knockout stages of a World Cup for the first time, Serbia will likely have to battle it out with Switzerland and Cameroon, who face each other on Thursday, to reach the round of 16 – with no disastrous results for Brazil.
But as the World Cup has demonstrated so far, don’t rule out any eventuality.
Switzerland vs. Cameroon – 5:00 PM ET
Uruguay vs. South Korea – 8:00 p.m. ET
Portugal vs Ghana – 11:00 ET
Brazil vs. Serbia – 2:00 p.m. ET
US: Fox Sports
UK: BBC or ITV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell Media
South Africa: SABC