The barb was telling of the enduring Cristiano Ronaldo predicament.
The star, the victim, the prima donna, the cynosure, once fearsome on-field presence now fading finishing skills, Portugal’s No 7 was fulfilling all the roles with trademark aplomb. In the end, there’s always the penalty spot when the script begins to flag a bit. The goal made Ronaldo the first male player to score in five World Cups, a record that’s unlikely to be broken in a long, long time. It also gave him a unique standing in the greatest debate, since his good friend Messi did not score even once at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Ghana, unlike African teams’ nature, were somewhat in their shell. Maybe it’s the Europeanization of their football, where being circumspect takes over instinct, or maybe expecting them to be fearless of the opposition and attack-minded is casual stereotyping of the African DNA. But it was true that Ghana only emerged after Ronaldo earned the penalty, dodgy at best but it being what it is, it ensured that what ensued was a minor classic, where Portugal survived only by the skin of their teeth as Inaki Williams slipped at just that moment when he would have conned Diogo Costa, blindside by the striker’s presence as he prepared his goal-kick. What an end that would have proved.
Eight years ago, there was a similar clash between the two at the World Cup in Brazil. Hammered by a rampant Germany in the opening game, there was little fight left in the Portuguese in their final group game against the African side, which too was struggling to stay in the tournament. What changed in the intervening eight years for both sides, especially Portugal, was the emergence of a fine, new generation inspired solely by their hero’s exploits and goal-scoring prowess for his clubs.
One among them, who played a key role in keeping the transition going was young Joao Felix. Any ‘young players to watch out for’ selection for this World Cup build-up is incomplete without Felix’s mention in it. A temperamental but terribly exciting ball-playing talent, Felix has been a permanent fixture in Atletico Madrid squads for the past couple of seasons, yet he is horribly underplayed at his club which has been in dire need of fresh invention. Felix would not find room in a Portugal selection either, given their recent depth, but he started against Ghana showing that finally, he is fundamental to plans now.
It is with same idea at Brazil where the team doesn’t have to revolve around a slowly maturing Neymar. Even if he didn’t finish the match, Neymar is already the most fouled player in this tournament with 5 fouls already. Then with his right ankle taking a beating, he is taking a backseat, as a team of young men, in their early 20s, inspired by him are deciding things on the field. It was prodigious Vinicius’s service with his right outstep no less, that set up Richarlison for that overhead kick goal against Serbia.
There are ageing lions at this World Cup, and there are the young ones who are staking a claim to the centrestage.