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How Portugal Held Off Ghana on Ronaldo's Record-Setting Day

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Credit...Carl Recine/Reuters

DOHA, Qatar — The eyes were drawn to Cristiano Ronaldo, even more than normal.

Fans poured into Stadium 974 to cheer him and the Portugal team he has led for a generation. But mostly him. There may be no more ubiquitous jersey in soccer than Ronaldo's No. 7, and on Thursday a good portion of that laundry seemed to have congregated inside a temporary arena dropped between a port and the highway to Doha's international airport.

As much as anything, Portugal fans wanted to see what Ronaldo would do next — and maybe last. He is 37 now, and suddenly unemployed, having chain-sawed a burning bridge with Manchester United this month. The fight has left Ronaldo's reputation and career exit in flux. But nothing can repair an image and spackle a legacy like the World Cup. And so, on a room-temperature evening steps from the Persian Gulf, Ronaldo took the field against Ghana, and the crowd roared, and he waved, and the crowd roared again, and the cameras locked onto his face and the soccer world turned its gaze his way and everything felt normal again.

The ball, and the game, revolved around Ronaldo, not unexpectedly. And when the scoreless match needed an uncorking midway through the second half, it was Ronaldo, of course, who did the honors. His penalty kick just after the hour mark sent Portugal on its way to what became — after an overflow of late goals — an uneasy 3-2 victory.

When it ended, there was Ronaldo, smiling and shaking hands, moving on to wherever this tournament take him, and wherever he takes Portugal.

"I think Cris likes to work under criticism from everyone," his teammate Bruno Fernandes told a scrum of reporters afterward. "I pray for all of you to keep doing that because it gets the best of himself when you guys do that."

He has already made a little soccer history here. Ronaldo's start against Ghana made him only the fifth man to appear in five World Cups, and his penalty made him the first to score in five of them. And it came with familiar aplomb. After drawing a foul, and the penalty, while racing for a 50-50 ball in the area with Ghana's big center back, Mohammed Salisu, Ronaldo set the ball on the spot and lined up his shot.

He danced to the left, a bit of sidestepping ballet, drilled the ball high over the right shoulder of goalkeeper Lawrence Ati-Zigi, then ran to the corner to soak in the kind of adulation that he is used to.

But because little comes easy for Portugal at World Cups, his team gave Ronaldo's goal right back, as André Ayew popped up in the right spot a few minutes later and evened the score for Ghana, the lowest-ranked team in the tournament. Could Portugal follow Argentina and Germany as heavyweight upset victims in the first games of the World Cup?

No. Portugal's João Félix and Rafael Leão buried shots about two minutes apart, staking Portugal to a two-goal lead and giving Ronaldo a chance to depart to handshakes and hugs. He had barely sat down on the bench, though, when Ghana's Osman Bukari scored in the 89th minute to pull the underdogs within a goal. The drama flared a few more times, but the scoring ended there.

This will most likely be the last time that Ronaldo and Portugal arrive together at a World Cup. Winning the country's first title feels possible, as it often has with Ronaldo, but not likely. Hopes have faded with the years, but they have not died. Not yet.

The crowd, heavily weighted for Portugal, squealed a chorus every time Ronaldo touched the ball. It was as if nothing noteworthy had happened in his life, and his career, in the past couple of weeks.

For months, Ronaldo had been a misfit part at Manchester United. He made little secret of his frustration at being relegated to a role as a high-priced substitute, and last month he made headlines by refusing to take the field in a game and, instead, heading for tunnel before the game was even over.

Just before the World Cup began, Ronaldo finally said it all out loud. Speaking on British television to Piers Morgan, he said he had no regard for United's manager, Erik ten Hag, and that he felt betrayed by the club that he had first joined in 2003, a once-happy marriage that lifted the club to championships and Ronaldo to stardom.

The interview sealed it; United announced the divorce on Tuesday. And, somehow again, Portugal's World Cup drama was all about Ronaldo.

The question for Portugal, the one that Manchester United just answered, was whether Ronaldo was a help or a hindrance to its chances.

He answered in Stadium 974 by being the most dangerous player on the field.

Scoring felt like Ronaldo's responsibility, as much as ever. His first big chance came in the 10th minute, when a Ghana turnover and a quick pass from Otávio found Ronaldo in an unexpected meeting with the ball and Ati-Zigi, who smothered the play.

Three minutes later, sizing up a perfect cross, Ronaldo leaped and pushed a header wide. It was his best scoring chance, and it ended with his head in his hands.

Later in the first half, he had an apparent goal waved away immediately when the referee spotted the nudge that separated him from a defender to score it.

Halftime came without a score. Portugal fans swayed from patiently expecting something good in the first half to worrying about something bad in the second.

But Portugal knew none of this would be simple. Under the continued direction of veteran manager Fernando Santos, it found itself in a Group H that featured three tricky teams from three continents.

Ghana was considered an unpredictable opponent, one with talent and some history but caught in a bit of a lull. There are more difficult challenges ahead. South Korea can threaten with Son Heung-min, who has been approved to play after a facial fracture had put his presence in doubt. Uruguay knocked Portugal out of the 2018 World Cup in the round of 16, but it, too, sits in that title-or-bust pressure chamber, unfair as it might be.

But few teams know the pressure of Ronaldo and Portugal. When he was 21, he led his country to the World Cup semifinals in Germany, matching Portugal's best-ever showing. It felt like a ladder step for a young star. Instead, Portugal has managed nothing better than a round-of-16 appearance since. That last exit, from Russia via Uruguay in 2018, could hardly be pinned on Ronaldo, who scored four goals in four games.

But he is Ronaldo, a mix of legend and celebrity now looking for a way out. He has two more games, at least, to find the way.

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:58 p.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:58 p.m. ET

Andrew Das

Reporting from Qatar

FULL TIME: Portugal 3, Ghana 2. That was a bit scarier than Portugal would have liked, especially after taking a 3-1 lead, but World Cup wins don't come with asterisks: You just need to finish with more goals than the other team. They've done that here, and can drive away pleased with it, since it leaves them top of the group after South Korea and Uruguay tied earlier today.

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:52 p.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:52 p.m. ET

Andrew Das

Reporting from Qatar

90′ Nine minutes of added time, merely the latest eyebrow-raising total in this tournament, which has apparently rewritten the way that total is calculated.

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:48 p.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:48 p.m. ET

Andrew Das

Reporting from Qatar

89′ Hold on — GOAL! Ghana drives down the left, Osman Bukari rises in the center and it's suddenly 3-2.

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Credit...Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:47 p.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:47 p.m. ET

Andrew Das

Reporting from Qatar

87′ Ronaldo's No. 7 goes up on the fourth official's board at midfield, signaling he will be substituted, and his stroll to the sideline makes him your human victory cigar. Félix goes off, too.

Or does it …..

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:39 p.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:39 p.m. ET

Andrew Das

Reporting from Qatar

80′ GOAL! Has Portugal just made it three?? Rafael Leão, who has been on the field about two minutes, gets a free shot on the right and buries it. He looked as if he might have had a toe offside, but the assistant referee's flag stays down and VAR stays silent again. Portugal 3, Ghana 1.

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Credit...Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:36 p.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:36 p.m. ET

Andrew Das

Reporting from Qatar

78′ GOAL! After a flurry of substitutes causes a short delay, Portugal runs right up the field and takes the lead back. Bruno Fernandes, in the center circle, picks out João Félix and he coolly slots home after charging into the area from the right wing. Portugal 2, Ghana 1.

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Credit...Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:32 p.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:32 p.m. ET

Andrew Das

Reporting from Qatar

Ghana wasn't behind for long. Kudus makes a great run to get in behind on Portugal's left, then cut a pass back under Rúben Dias and off Danilo in the center. That last touch was the big one: It took the sting out of the low ball and left it to trickle into the path of Ayew, who slammed it home for Ghana's — and Africa's first goal of the World Cup.

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:31 p.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:31 p.m. ET

Andrew Das

Reporting from Qatar

73′ GOAL! Ghana has tied it on an André Ayew goal.

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Credit...Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:21 p.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:21 p.m. ET

Andrew Das

Reporting from Qatar

62′ PENALTY! Ronaldo goes down in the box after a 50-50 challenge with Mohammed Salisu and the referee immediately points to the spot.

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:22 p.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:22 p.m. ET

Andrew Das

Reporting from Qatar

65′ Ronaldo — was there a doubt? — steps up to take the penalty. GOAL! 1-0 to Portugal.

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Credit...Julian Finney/Getty Images

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:19 p.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:19 p.m. ET

John Branch

Reporting from Qatar

The official sporting term for what Ghana is doing is "hanging around." Portugal fans have gone from patiently expecting something good to worrying about something bad.

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:18 p.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:18 p.m. ET

Andrew Das

Reporting from Qatar

58′ Now we have some controversy. Seidu, Ghana's right back, gets a yellow for a foul, then goes head to head with João Félix and drives his head down into the nose of the taller Portuguese player. That's naughty; Félix goes down in a heap and Elfath, the referee, faces a hard choice: Does he give Seidu another yellow, and send him off — potentially changing the game?

He decides against it, and opts for the stern talking-to. Ghana is quite lucky there.

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:04 p.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 12:04 p.m. ET

Andrew Das

Reporting from Qatar

The second half is under way. No changes in the lineups and no changes in how this is going: Portugal is already pressing deep in Ghana's half.

Nov. 24, 2022, 11:51 a.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 11:51 a.m. ET

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Credit...Julian Finney/Getty Images

Ghana and Portugal are scoreless as they head to the locker rooms for halftime, the ninth straight goal-less half for an African team at this World Cup. (That is all of them, by the way; the continent is still waiting for its first goal in Qatar.)

Cristiano Ronaldo missed two good chances: one after he broke in chasing a perfectly threaded through ball from Otávio and the second after he called for a cross at the back post and then mis-hit the header.

He did manage to put the ball in the net once, but the American referee, Ismael Elfath, spotted a foul on the nudge Ronaldo used to free himself and (correctly) disallowed the goal. Portugal kept feeding him, however, and it's a safe bet they will not veer from that strategy as long as he is in the game.

Nov. 24, 2022, 11:47 a.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 11:47 a.m. ET

Andrew Das

Reporting from Qatar

43′ Ghana is giving no quarter here, trading shoves and nudges and even the occasional kick. (Kudus just picked the the first yellow of the half for a foul on Cancelo.) Portugal may have brought the greater star power, but Ghana will be pleased that it took some good shots and held its ground. Now it just needs to get to halftime with the same scoreline.

Nov. 24, 2022, 11:34 a.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 11:34 a.m. ET

Andrew Das

Reporting from Qatar

31′ Ronaldo has the ball in the net, but it's not a goal. Elfath, the referee, spotted the shove on Djiku that Ronaldo used to free himself in the area and he waves off the goal. He's not wrong, even if Djiku went down far too easily.

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Credit...Julian Finney/Getty Images

Nov. 24, 2022, 11:28 a.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 11:28 a.m. ET

John Branch

Reporting from Qatar

They probably have ways to track this, but with all the action on one end of the field, and with Ronaldo's penchant for preserving energy, I may end the day with more steps than he does, mostly just walking from the metro station to the stadium.

Nov. 24, 2022, 11:21 a.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 11:21 a.m. ET

John Branch

Reporting from Qatar

The weight of expectations are impacting the vibe in the stadium. Ghana fans are having more fun, making music, filling the air with the sound of a horn and singing and clapping. Portugal fans, despite their team's controlling the action, are mostly quiet, as if saving themselves for the goal they suspect will come any moment.

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Credit...Jose Sena Goulao/EPA, via Shutterstock

Nov. 24, 2022, 11:16 a.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 11:16 a.m. ET

Andrew Das

Reporting from Qatar

13′ Another chance for Ronaldo, lurking at the back post. He rises above the crowd in the box like an N.B.A. forward chasing an alley-oop pass but gets a poor connection on the header. This will gall him as a perfectionist, especially a 37-year-old one who knows every chance is golden.

Still, Portugal is pressing for a goal, and you can feel one might be near if this keeps up …

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Credit...Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Nov. 24, 2022, 11:11 a.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 11:11 a.m. ET

Andrew Das

Reporting from Qatar

10′ There's Ronaldo's first chance, and it's a great one: a pass threaded into the center and he runs on to it. But his first touch fails him and goalkeeper Lawrence Ati-Zigi charges out to smother any chance at a shot.

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Credit...Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Nov. 24, 2022, 11:08 a.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 11:08 a.m. ET

Andrew Das

Reporting from Qatar

Ghana, which emerged from the crucible of tough draws and tense playoffs that is African qualifying, is the lowest-ranked team in the World Cup field: No. 61.

Nov. 24, 2022, 11:00 a.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 11:00 a.m. ET

Andrew Das

Reporting from Qatar

Today's referee, Ismael Elfath, is a Moroccan-born American and should be familiar to viewers of games in Major League Soccer. He works so much it sometimes feels as if he calls all M.L.S. games.

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Credit...Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Nov. 24, 2022, 10:59 a.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 10:59 a.m. ET

John Branch

Reporting from Qatar

It feels like a home game for Portugal, but it's not for a lack of effort from Ghana's fans. They are vastly outnumbered, but brought plenty of spirit and a sunburst of bright colors, found mostly in one section behind the goal.

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Credit...Abir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock

Nov. 24, 2022, 10:53 a.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 10:53 a.m. ET

Andrew Das

Reporting from Qatar

Ghana's best finish at a World Cup was a trip to the quarterfinals in 2010, but that one left a bitter taste: Uruguay's Luis Suárez used his hand to stop a sure late goal, Ghana missed the penalty, and then went out in a shootout. That result has not been forgotten, and it has set up one of the tastiest matchups in Qatar: the teams will be in their final group game on Dec. 2.

Nov. 24, 2022, 10:32 a.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 10:32 a.m. ET

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Credit...Martin Divisek/EPA, via Shutterstock

Cristiano Ronaldo, suddenly unemployed at age 37, is in Portugal's starting lineup, confirming his appearance in a fifth World Cup, which will match an achievement claimed by only four other players: Mexico's Rafael Marquez and Antonio Carbajal, Germany's Lothar Matthäus and Ronaldo's eternal rival, Lionel Messi of Argentina.

Portugal has the stronger team on paper — backed by the Manchester City tandem of Rúben Dias and João Cancelo and driven forward by the likes of Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United), Bernardo Silva (Manchester City) and João Felix (Atlético Madrid) — but being strong on paper hasn't always counted for much in Qatar. Just ask Messi. And Germany.

Ghana's lineup is studded by experience and talented veteran pros, too, however. Thomas Partey is a force in defensive midfield, and Iñaki Williams — a newly minted Ghana player — should cause trouble if his teammates can get him the ball.

The lineups:

Portugal: Diogo Costa; João Cancelo, Danilo Pereira, Rúben Dias, Raphaël Guerreiro; Rúben Neves, Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva; João Felix, Cristiano Ronaldo, Otávio.

Ghana: Lawrence Ati-Zigi; Daniel Amartey, Mohammed Salisu, Alexander Djika; Baba Rahman, Thomas Partey, Salis Abdul Samed, André Ayew, Mohammed Kudus, Seidu Alidu; Iñaki Williams.

Nov. 24, 2022, 10:19 a.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 10:19 a.m. ET

John Branch

Reporting from Qatar

Portugal fans are on the loose in Doha, making themselves seen and heard. And heard some more.

Among the fan group is a large number of Indians, voracious soccer fans with a national team that has never played in the World Cup. Three friends on the Metro to the stadium, wearing Portugal shirts and carrying a sign to support Ronaldo, said that Portugal wasn't even their favorite non-Indian team to cheer. One prefers Germany, another Brazil. But they got tickets, and estimated that 60 percent of their love for Portugal is geared toward Ronaldo, not the national team. One man reconsidered. "No, 90 percent," he said.

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Credit...Julian Finney/Getty Images

Nov. 24, 2022, 10:15 a.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 10:15 a.m. ET

John Branch

Reporting from Qatar

It's unlikely any of the fans here love Ronaldo as much as this woman.

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CreditCredit...John Branch/The New York Times

Nov. 24, 2022, 10:07 a.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 10:07 a.m. ET

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Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal during a training session in Doha, Qatar, on Wednesday.Credit...Jose Sena Goulao/EPA, via Shutterstock

Brazil may be the headliner at the World Cup on Thursday, but no player has made more headlines this week than Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal, who will step onto his sport's biggest stage against Ghana in his opening game.

But which Ronaldo will we see tonight? The one whose ongoing disagreements with his club, Manchester United, led it to conclude it was better off without him? (United and Ronaldo agreed to part ways on Tuesday, though don't let anyone tell you it was an amicable divorce.)

Or will we see the more driven Ronaldo, the player who can score against any team at any time should the chance to do so come his way. Portugal's midfield, driven forward by Ronaldo's now ex-teammate at United, Bruno Fernandes, and Manchester City's Bernardo Silva, is certainly capable of putting chances on a play for him. And don't underestimate the desire of a proud player to prove himself — if only because he needs to land a job for January.

Nov. 24, 2022, 9:51 a.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 9:51 a.m. ET

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Stadium 974 in Doha will host seven matches at the World Cup, including Portugal against Ghana on Thursday.Credit...Julian Finney/Getty Images

Qatar has eight stadiums for the World Cup. One is unlike all the others: It will be coming down after the tournament.

That's Stadium 974, an arena built out of modular steel and 974 colorful shipping containers — containers turned horizontal and vertical, used for bathrooms, elevator shafts, offices, staircases. It is this short-lived, 44,089-seat stadium that will be used for Portugal-Ghana on Thursday, the second of seven matches it will host.

From the outside, the stadium looks like an erector set stuffed with Legos. It sits near a port, outside of central Doha, in an area with development plans that do not include a stadium. Why shipping containers? It is a nod, supposedly, to the shipping past and future of Qatar, a lump of a peninsula in the Persian Gulf. But, really, why not? After all, Qatar has found clever uses for containers for this World Cup.

And why 974? Not only is that the number of containers — a claim that is tough to verify — but also Qatar's international calling code.

Nov. 24, 2022, 9:42 a.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2022, 9:42 a.m. ET

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Credit...Martin Divisek/EPA, via Shutterstock

Ghana is the last of the five African teams at this World Cup to take the field, and it will be looking to do what the previous four have not: score a goal. The four previous countries from the continent to start play in Qatar — Senegal, Tunisia, Morocco and Cameroon — all were shut out, though it is hard to say they were overmatched: Morocco (against Croatia) and Tunisia (against Denmark) both held better-regarded teams to draws; Cameroon was occasionally threatening in a loss to Switzerland; and Senegal, the reigning African champion, faced the Netherlands.

The upside for African soccer? Its teams are not giving up goals, either. In four games, African teams have been outscored by a combined 3-0.

Nov. 22, 2022, 6:42 a.m. ET

Nov. 22, 2022, 6:42 a.m. ET

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Ángel Di María and Lionel Messi of Argentina are among the elite players who might be competing in their last World Cup.Credit...Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

That this World Cup will, almost certainly, provide the conclusion to the international careers of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo has long been assumed. Their starlight is so bright, though, that it has served to obscure all of the other farewells that will come on the migrant-built fields of Qatar.

This tournament will extinguish the light of a whole galaxy. It will, most likely, be the final time Luka Modric, Thiago Silva, Daniel Alves, Manuel Neuer, Thomas Müller, Jordi Alba, Ángel Di María, Luis Suárez, Edinson Cavani, Eden Hazard and Antoine Griezmann grace the grandest stage sports has to offer. Robert Lewandowski and Gareth Bale may yet join them, part of the clutch of superstars on a valedictory tour.

World Cups, of course, have always had that purpose. Just as they are the forge of greatness, they act, too, as the place it takes its bow.

In that light, this World Cup is no different from any other. And yet the sheer numbers suggest something different. They give the impression that soccer will go into the tournament with one elite and emerge from it with quite another. That is not because there is a greater proportion of famous players at the end of their career than normal. It is because there are more famous players, full stop.

It is likely that the last 15 years will come to be seen almost exclusively through the lens of Messi and Ronaldo, the two players who have defined it. Such an interpretation, though, would be reductive. It is better thought of, instead, as soccer's first truly global age: an era in which fans across the world could watch almost every second of a player's career, in which the great and the good encountered one another with unprecedented frequency in the Champions League and came into our homes through video games, a time when rare talent clustered together at a handful of superclubs.

The generation that will exit the stage in Qatar is the last bastion of the first generation of players who started and ended their journeys in that ecosystem.

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