DOHA, Qatar (AP)Cristiano Ronaldo is in the shop window as he starts his fifth and probably final World Cup with Portugal.
As of late Tuesday, the 37-year-old forward was without a club after Manchester United canceled his contract as a result of his explosive interview criticizing manager Erik ten Hag, the club’s owners and many of his United teammates.
Ronaldo doesn’t appear to have a new team lined up so his performances at the World Cup might yet convince potential employers to take the plunge on the five-time world player of the year, who may be past his prime but remains one of soccer’s most lethal finishers on his day.
Speaking before the announcement that he had left United by mutual consent, Ronaldo was adamant that club matters would not impact his displays for Portugal at the World Cup and were not disrupting the atmosphere in the squad heading into Thursday’s group game against Ghana at Stadium 974 in Doha.
That might need revisiting now. The motivation of winning the World Cup for the first time is likely driving Ronaldo enough in Qatar, but impressing a potential new club would be a nice bonus to go alongside it.
Bruno Fernandes said the drama surrounding his national team and Manchester United teammate is not a distraction.
”Our focus is 100% on the national team and we are 100% focused on what we have to do,” Fernandes said.
Right now, that means overcoming Ghana.
The African nation is the lowest-ranked team at the World Cup – at No. 61 – and is the big underdog in a group also containing Uruguay and South Korea.
Still, Saudi Arabia showed anything is possible at this tournament by beating Lionel Messi’s Argentina against the odds on Tuesday, and Ghana has previously come within a handball by Luis Suarez of playing in a World Cup semifinal – in 2010.
”Surely we have to be very, very brave,” Ghana coach Otto Addo said Wednesday.
The Blacks Stars also have some form players in Thomas Partey – the midfield anchorman of Premier League leader Arsenal – and Mohammed Kudus, who has been scoring freely for Ajax in the Champions League this season.
Portugal will start as the favorite, with coach Fernando Santos having so much depth in attack, midfield and at full back as well as the experience of leading the national team to the European Championship title in 2016.
”Today, teams are increasingly stronger. Most players as in Ghana’s case, are playing in big tournaments, so they’re very advanced players,” Santos said. ”It is challenging but we are confident. We trust our work, we trust each other.”
Concerns persist over whether Santos is too pragmatic given the talent at his disposal but he remains a popular choice as coach eight years after being hired. Santos has shown he isn’t afraid to make tough decisions by leaving Ronaldo out of a starting team in a Nations League game against Iberian rival Spain in June for ”tactical reasons.”
Doing so again for the first match of a World Cup is highly unlikely, even if Ronaldo’s head might be scrambled given the turbulence in his club career over the past week.
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80