Two days after a stormy exit from Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo begins his World Cup campaign against Portugal, looking to put the events of the past week and a half behind him.
Portugal face Ghana at Stadium 974 on Thursday in what is likely to be the final World Cup for 37-year-old Ronaldo – a trophy that has so far eluded him during his illustrious career.
A successful tournament in Qatar would also allow Ronaldo to move on from his messy divorce with United, who ended his second spell at the club on Tuesday.
It came after the striker gave an explosive interview to Talk TV in which he said he felt let down by United and launched an explosive attack on manager Erik ten Hag.
And with the World Cup kicking off, Ronaldo has insisted the timing of his bombshell interview will not detract from the focus of his Portuguese team-mates.
“The best timing of my life 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 what kind of person I am.
After announcing his resignation, Ronaldo was banned for two games and fined 50,000 pounds (about $60,000) by England’s Football Association (FA) for punching a mobile phone out of a spectator’s hand earlier this year.
The incident happened after United’s 1-0 defeat against Everton in April. As well as the fine and ban – which does not apply to the World Cup but will carry over to whatever new club he joins – the FA warned Ronaldo about his future behaviour.
Portugal are strong favorites against Ghana, ranked 52 in the FIFA rankings.
But pedigree and star power seem to matter little in this World Cup tournament, where the underdogs have fared well against stronger opponents.
Saudi Arabia came from behind to beat Argentina 2-1, while Japan did the same against Germany – clear signs that no team should be underestimated and neither team should be complacent.
Having not reached the quarter-finals of a World Cup since 2006, Portugal will have a point to prove in Qatar and will enter the tournament with plenty of firepower.
Although Liverpool striker Diogo Jota is missing through injury, Ronaldo, his old 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 Ghanaian side that has no shortage of quality.
Having been eliminated from the Africa Cup of Nations following a humiliating group stage loss to Comoros in January, the Black Stars will benefit from the pre-tournament ‘signings’ of striker Inaki Williams and right-back Tariq Lamptey.
Williams switched allegiance from Spain earlier this year and Lamptey from England.
Otto Addo – the tournament’s only part-time coach – also has star midfielder Mohammed Kudus and experienced campaigners such as Thomas Partey and the Ayew brothers, Jordan and Andre at his disposal.
It remains to be seen whether Addo, who primarily works as a scout for German club Borussia Dortmund, will make Ghana click.
Group H also includes Uruguay and South Korea, who will 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 Núñez also features 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 this week wearing a protective face mask.
In Thursday’s other games, pre-tournament favorites Brazil and Serbia are the final two teams to get the tournament underway when they meet at the Lusail Stadium.
Five-time champions Brazil have arguably the best attacking line-up of the tournament in terms of both quality and depth.
Neymar Jr – like fellow talismans Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – is looking for his first World Cup trophy and is backed up front alongside Real Madrid’s Vinicius Jr, Barcelona’s Raphinha and Everton’s Richarlison.
But Serbia, who topped their qualifying group ahead of Portugal, are no passers-by and have plenty of goalscoring talent in captain Dušan Tadić, Juventus forward Dušan Vlahović and Fulham front man Aleksandar Mitrovic. However, Vlahović and Mitrovic have both suffered injuries before the tournament.
Hoping to reach the knockout stages of the 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 last 16 – barring disastrous results for Brazil.
But as this World Cup has shown so far, don’t rule out any possibility.
Switzerland vs Cameroon – 5:00 AM ET
Uruguay vs South Korea – 8am ET
Portugal vs Ghana – 11am ET
Brazil vs Serbia – 2pm ET
USA: Fox Sports
UK: BBC or ITV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell Media
South Africa: SABC