Two days after his turbulent departure from Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo will kick off his World Cup campaign with Portugal and look to put the events of the last week and a half behind him.
Portugal take on Ghana at the 974 Stadium on Thursday, kicking off what will likely be the last World Cup for the 37-year-old Ronaldo, 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 overcome his messy divorce with United, who ended 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 progresses, Ronaldo has offered assurances that the attention of his Portuguese teammates will not be affected by the timing of his explosive interview.
“In my life, the best moment is always my moment,” 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 they know the kind of person I am”.
Following the announcement of his departure from Manchester United, Ronaldo was suspended for two matches and fined £50,000 (around $60,000) by the English Football Association (FA) for slapping a mobile phone out of a spectator’s hand. at the beginning of this year.
The incident came after United’s 1-0 loss to April at Everton. In addition to the fine and suspension, which does not apply at the World Cup but will carry over to any new club he joins, Ronaldo has been warned by the FA about his future conduct.
Group H starts
Portugal is the heavy favorite against Ghana with 52 places separating the teams in the FIFA rankings.
But pedigree and star power seem to count for little in this World Cup, a tournament where underdogs have fared well against more 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, nor should any team be complacent.
Having not reached the quarter-finals of a World Cup since 2006, Portugal have a point to prove in Qatar and come into the tournament with considerable firepower.
Despite losing Liverpool striker Diogo Jota to injury, the likes of Ronaldo, his former United team-mate Bruno Fernandes, and Manchester City stars João Cancelo and Bernardo Silva are likely to feature on Thursday.
Against them will be a Ghana team short on form but not lacking in quality.
Having been knocked out of the Africa Cup of Nations after a humiliating group stage defeat to Comoros in January, the Black Stars will benefit from the “signings” of striker Iñaki Williams and right-back Tariq Lamptey ahead of the tournament.
Williams switched allegiances from Spain earlier this year and Lamptey from England.
Otto Addo, the only part-time coach at the tournament, also has star midfielder Mohammed Kudus and experienced campaigners like Thomas Partey and the Ayew brothers, Jordan and Andre at his disposal.
It remains to be seen if Addo, who mainly works as a scout for German team Borussia Dortmund, can make Ghana click.
Also in Group H are Uruguay and South Korea, who meet on Thursday at Education City Stadium.
Uruguay is the favorite and will benefit from the experience of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez. Liverpool striker Darwin Nunez 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 has been training in a protective face mask this week.
Brazil faces Serbia
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 Lusail Stadium.
Five-time champions Brazil have arguably the tournament’s best attacking line-up, both in terms of quality and depth.
Neymar Jr, like fellow talismans Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, is seeking his first World Cup trophy, and will be 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 not be easy to convince and have plenty of goalscoring prowess in captain Dušan Tadić, Juventus striker Dušan Vlahović and Fulham striker Al