Ronaldo scores in fifth World Cup as Portugal see off Ghana in thriller

Game comes to life in second half, with five goals coming in the last 25 minutes

High drama in the 100th minute almost hoovered up all the star dust. Diogo Costa appeared to get the full hairdryer treatment from Cristiano Ronaldo as the Porto goalkeeper cut a disconsolate figure tramping off the pitch at full-time, blessed to avoid responsibility for turning victory into a damaging draw.

As Uruguay and South Korea showed in a scoreless thriller, Group H is no place for careless error.

Costa had ball in hand, with Portugal’s breadwinners either withdrawn or up field, having taken a 3-1 lead with 10 minutes of normal time remaining. Not a second remained as the 23-year-old, who is keeping Roma’s Rui Patrício benched, rolled the ball on the grass, completely unaware that he was being stalked by Iñaki Williams.

The raucous Ghanaian crowd went deathly quiet, their jingle-jangling ceased, as they spied Williams, the wily Spanish-born striker, prowling from behind Costa. But as Williams turned to steal an equaliser he slipped, allowing Rúben Dias to save his goalie from inescapable embarrassment. Danilo Pereira cleared off the line and Portugal survived.


Only after attending these Ronaldo “nights” does it become fully apparent what they are about. Old Trafford will never know them again, but Manchester United fans can eventually cherish the good years, much like the Bernabeu regulars in Madrid.

Friends and family of Irish players will never forget the 37-year-old’s most recent, jaw-droppingly athletic feat, when the impossible became possible; his goal-scoring-world-record-breaking late headers denying a famous victory for the Republic of Ireland at Estadio Algarve in September 2020.

When Ronaldo scores the air gets sucked from the stadium’s collective lungs, as he gallops to the corner flag, leaping and landing with that scything double-arm motion, as a deafening “Rooooooooooooo” circles the arena.

His 65th minute penalty broke the deadlock, prompting two more Portugal strikes that older versions of VAR might have rubbed out, as the main man wheeled past a mural of Messi’s cartoon head, their epic rivalry nearing its natural conclusion. Between them they have 15 World Cup goals, Ronaldo leading this generation’s private war 8-7.

His penalty provided a reminder; this was no mere football match, more an event that cannot be overshadowed by a World Cup group setting, or the witch doctor among Ghana’s spectacularly colourful crowd.

Ronaldo is so pop-star-famous he goes by one name. And he has two of them, both interchangeably used with instant recognition. Cristiano on song is The Beatles at Shea stadium, Ronaldo in-tune is Oasis at Knebworth.

Failing a miracle breakthrough in de-ageing medicine, he arrives in Qatar with the best and last opportunity to win a World Cup. Of course, the child of Madeira also pursues one last individual record. The first man to score at five World Cups is one shy of Eusebio’s Portuguese record of nine goals in six matches at the 1966 tournament.

Ronaldo will be disappointed not to have waltzed past ‘O Rei’ by half-time when, remarkably, the contest turned around scoreless. Doubters began querying his legs when he was denied by Ghana goalkeeper Lawrence Ati-Zigi’s lunging body and, again, after an uncharacteristically misguided header having leapt over Southampton’s Mohammed Salisu.

That brought “CR7 watch” to the half-hour mark, when his heir apparent João Félix flicked a pass that Cristiano finished like he was still living those prime La Liga years. Moroccan-American referee Ismail Elfath, who played no small role in this story, quickly blew for a nudge on Alexander Djiku.

Before the damn burst Alidu Seidu enraged Ronaldo with a dirty stamp as Ghana brought an aggression to proceedings to counteract the slickness of Félix and Bruno Fernandes. André Ayew saw yellow for hammering João Cancelo, while Seidu was booked for a foul on Felix that prompted some head-rubbing between the pair. By the letter of the law, Elfath could have shown red to the Ghanaian, but he opted to defuse the situation.

It was Salisu who tipped the scales for Portugal, his marginal contact with Ronaldo in the box was deemed a penalty without any reference to VAR. This enraged the Africans, prompting manager Otto Addo to brand it “a special gift from the referee”. Ronaldo unpacked the early Christmas present, closing his eyes and forgetting about Gavin Bazunu, to laser the spot-kick an inch beyond Ati-Zigi’s left glove.

The lead lasted seven minutes. When Dias was caught dithering by Ajax flyer Mohammed Kudus, the Ajax flyer centred for Danilo’s shabby clearance to be finished by Ayew.

The 974 stadium, made from shipping containers, caught fire five minutes later when Felix beat the offside line from a Fernandes’ pass to plant a delicate scoop over Atl-Zigi to make it 2-1. João Félix and Bruno Fernandes are the ideal supporting cast for any striker, and they combined once more to allow Rafael Leão to make it 3-1. Again, Leão looked offside in real time.

That should have been the final page in the latest Cristiano chapter but Osman Bukari, hilariously, did the Ronaldo celebration after heading home a Baba Rahman’s cross, when the Reading left back skinned João Cancelo.

The Africans among a 42,662 attendance went berserk as nine minutes of injury time brought a paleness to Ronaldo’s mug, not seen since he stormed off the United bench and into his Bentley Continental GT to seek out Piers Morgan for a chat that appears to have inadvertently ruined Avram Glazer’s Thanksgiving in Palm Beach, Florida, after he was doorstepped by Sky News.

“I could help my team and all of the rest, it doesn’t matter,” said Ronaldo in a one question post-match press conference.

Uruguay next for Portugal on Monday night in futuristic Lusail.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent