KJ: Stars new and familiar seize spotlight for Portugal, Ghana, South Korea
Monday November 28th, 2022
Portugal 2-0 Uruguay – Lusail Stadium
There have been many trends starting to develop here in Qatar. Young players shining, second half games coming alive, dreadful set pieces, referees taking a long time to lecture players at dead ball situations and, subsequently, a lot of added time. Another trend really isn’t anything new, in a general football fandom context, but the fascination of individual stars is big here in Qatar. Games are billed inside the stadium as head-to-head matchups of stars. This reached a whole new level this evening inside Lusail Stadium. Cristiano Ronaldo was in town and although large pockets of Portugal and Uruguay fans were here, dressed in their colours, larger pockets of Ronaldo fans were also here dressed in many colours.
“I cannot believe I am going to see Ronaldo,” said one young lady in the walk up a ramp to the stadium. “Do you know he has more followers on Instagram than anybody in the world.”
Ronaldo is clearly the star attraction. Different kind of noises accompany him depending on what he does. As momentum builds on Portugal attacks, fans get excited in anticipation but when Ronaldo receives the ball screams of excitement come from the stands.
As the ‘Ronaldo Roadshow’ continues in Qatar his fans will hope it brings him back to Lusail for a final to play on December 18. If that is to happen the roadshow cannot make a stop on the field. Portugal is a very talented team here in Qatar, a serious contender to win the World Cup. Should they do that it will not be simply on the back of Ronaldo.
On this night it is the class and intelligence of two lads from Manchester bringing an Oasis of attacking talent to their play, Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva. The Ronaldo of yesteryear, often asked to lead this team despite so many frailties, has disappeared for a more mature player, clearly trusting more of his teammates than other stars. Ronaldo’s soft feet and play with his back to goal brings out the best of so many visionaries in this team, including another Premier League player, Ruben Neves, whose deep-lying playmaking ability is a sight to behold. It is a joy to see Ronaldo clearly enjoying his football and having outstanding players to play with. The more he learns to rely on them, the more both he and Portugal will benefit.
Bruno Fernandes scores a brace in this game — one that looked to grace the head of Ronaldo but goes in, and one from the spot. The scoreline of 2-0 is harsh on a Uruguay team that were transformed when Diego Alonso changed the shape just after the hour. Rodrigo Bentancur, Maxi Gomez and Luis Suarez all come close but cannot score. Portugal move on to the next round and look dangerous. Bernardo Silva told me afterwards: “Bruno was very, very good tonight, I am so happy for him and he hope he continues this form because we will need it.”
Like Brazil, who also play with four genuinely dangerous attackers on the field from the start, they may need to replace one – potentially Joao Felix – with another central midfielder later in the tournament, but for now the team is scoring goals, players are smiling and most importantly it’s not just all about Ronaldo. They can leave that for the stands where thousands started walking out the moment he was taken off in the 82nd minute. Leaving early meant they missed a goal, but thousands seemed to clinch a life goal by seeing Ronaldo himself.
Korea Republic 2-3 Ghana – Education City Stadium
The sun sets remarkably early here. It starts to be noticeable the moment the 4 p.m. game kicks off. Today, though, is the last day any games are played under it. As the sun disappears over a full stadium for the last time in Qatar, Son Heung-min appears from the tunnel. The world class star is wearing a mask here at the World Cup after sustaining a fracture around his left eye recently. Already a global icon, ‘Sonny’ – as he is known to his teammates – has the look of a superhero stepping out into the wilderness, getting ready for an evening of work and glancing around at his next mission. Today his battle is Ghana. The crowd roars to a level unlike anything else can in this game when Son receives the ball, bringing fuel to an already powerful man.
Son has many superpowers. He is a technical wizard, switching the ball from his left foot to his right at a top speed few can match. Those sent out to defend and stop him only hope to contain him, never really knowing whether he will go inside them on his right foot or outside them on his left. Any decision to pass rather than dribble and attack is a small victory for his opponent. For 20 minutes, Ghana chase Son and his colleagues and cannot get the ball.
Ghana, understanding they need more armour, bring out more physicality. It works. Directness leads to a free kick, won by Jordan Ayew, who swings in a delightful free kick that is finished by fellow Premier League player Mohammed Salisu. Ten minutes later, Ayew delivers again, with an inch perfect delivery that is headed home by the excellent Mohammed Kudus.
Two crosses, two Ghana goals.
Night fully falls on Education City Stadium and the masked man reappears from the half-time break with a new plan. Paulo Bento makes key changes, in personnel and style; Son starts to receive the ball more and the game comes alive.
Two crosses, two Korea Republic goals, each scored in the space of three minutes from the head of Cho Gue-sung. Fans scream, others cry in jubilation. World Cup goals are like nothing else in this sport. Each one celebrated at such a weight that those involved, whether scoring or watching, know it is something to stay with them forever.
Sonny and his boys are rampant. More attacks follow and Ghana are stunned. Yet, for one moment they are allowed the ball again. Gideon Mensah, playing well as a left back for the Black Stars, sends in another key cross, Inaki Williams misses the ball, but Kudus is at the back post to slot home a goal completely against the run of play. Son can hardly believe it, yet he continues to lead his squad, teasing defenders that leads to a chance cleared off the line and then missing a cross as it was fired into his path in a perfect place to fire home.
Ghana hold on, much to the joy of their terrific fans. This was the ideal World Cup game. Two teams with contrasting styles from different regions who both went out to win the game. The atmosphere around the game was marvellous. It was my first opportunity to take some time and visit the fan village ahead of the match, where kids were given flags to wave of the team of their choice, activities were put on and a World Cup store offered merchandise from the game and the two teams.
Whether they were locals or fans from afar you could sense they were having a great time and enjoying the moment — the kind of moment that will be fleeting in four years’ time, unfortunately.
I find myself thinking a lot about the 2026 World Cup lately. I think it’s because this ideal 32-team format will be torpedoed by greed and money by opening the next one to far too many countries. Gone will be the chance for us to see more competitive games like this on matchday two of a group when teams can be free to go for victories, not paralyzed by fear of what is next, and fans can enjoy a second set of matches knowing more is still to come no matter the outcome.