Oh no, not another Cristiano Ronaldo column. Well, what else could it be? Who else could it be? How about André Ayew, whose goal made it 1-1 and made a wild match of a night that, until then, really hadn’t been? João Félix, who clipped in a lovely shot to put Portugal back into the lead? Rafael Leão, perhaps, guiding his first touch into the net. There was Osman Bukari, scoring with two minutes to go – well, 10 – and at the end Iñaki Williams, with a flash of cunning that caught out everyone; that almost saw Ghana catch a break, too.
Sneaking up behind the Portugal goalkeeper, Diogo Costa, Williams stole the ball from his feet in the last minute, the chance to end this 3-3 suddenly appearing, an entire stadium gasping, only to slip as he turned back towards goal.
Still unable to believe it long after the final whistle, that was the most extraordinary, most absurd moment of what almost turned out to be an unexpectedly extraordinary match. And yet the moment belonged to Ronaldo, not least because somehow it was always going to.
Perhaps because we make it so. But history had been made after all. And even if it hadn’t, well, it’s him. An hour had gone when Ronaldo ran into the left side of the area. He was beaten to the ball by Mohammed Salisu, or so it seemed. As they came together, though, Ronaldo tumbled and the referee blew for a penalty. And so there he was, in his place, his moment. It was one they had waited for, too. In front of him, phones were held up, cameras ready, capturing not just a piece of history but a piece of theatre.
Standing on the spot and in the spotlight again, as if he ever really left it, Ronaldo put the ball down. He looked up then down again, and closed his eyes for some time. He took big, deep breaths, blew out hard, then skipped to his left, ran up and struck the penalty high into the net, just above the keeper’s hand. He did say he was bulletproof. It was his 819th career goal – eight hundred and nineteenth, for goodness sake – and his 118th for Portugal.
It also made him the first man to score at five World Cups: one against Iran in 2006, one against North Korea in 2010, one against Ghana in 2014, three against Spain, one against Morocco in 2018, and now this. He ran and leapt into the air, that familiar routine. Altogether now. Arms outstretched, as he came down, 40,000 people joined him in saying it: Siuuu! This is what they had come for. Some of them had been practising too.
The buildup had been dominated by the fallout in Manchester, to the extent of the doors to Portugal’s training camp having to be closed. The exhaustion at fielding endless questions was palpable, the claims that none of it mattered barely credible. And none of that reduced the attention on him; it may even have enhanced it, increased the awareness that this, here, is a last chance. The walk to the stadium was lined with Portugal shirts, seven on the back. More than all the rest put together. En route, a dad was busy telling his sons how to siuuu. Turned out, that would come in useful.
“I believe Portugal is the best team at this World Cup,” Ronaldo said. Look at the team, and maybe you can see it through the quality of the clubs they represent. Look and you see something else too. Porto, Manchester City, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Dortmund, Manchester United, Wolves, Porto, Manchester City, Atlético Madrid, unemployed. Yet still it was him they had come for. His was the only name really cheered when the teams were read out, the only name chanted too.
As they lined up before the game, he shook hands with a small kid in the tunnel. The kid, turning to the child alongside, blurted out: “Oh my god!” They went out and Ronaldo stood for the national anthem, then stood for a long drink, a line of cameras looking at him – which may have been why. His back turned to them, you could already picture the photos being captured. Say my name. Oh, they would. They might have done sooner in fact: it is not that Ronaldo could have got three here, it is that maybe he should have.
One chance was blocked by the keeper, another header went wide from close range. But then the moment came and from the spot, something almost symbolic: perhaps this game, his game, being decided like this when little else had happened. There was not much football, but Ronaldo won it. Sound familiar? Only he hadn’t. Barney Ronay had warned us to fast-forward to the moment when he won it with a late penalty. It came early, but it wasn’t so far off. Until, out of nowhere, it was. Suddenly, somehow, there were three goals, a real game. By then Ronaldo had been withdrawn to applause and with the score at 3-1. From the bench he watched Bukari score to make it 3-2, run to the corner, leap into the air and, yes, perform a siuuu of his own.