At Portugal vs. Morocco, the World Cup has two faces: Cristiano Ronaldo and Sepp Blatter
MOSCOW — All that is wonderful and rotten about the World Cup surfaced at sold-out Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday.
We’ll begin with the good, because that is why people traveled great distances and are spending stacks of rubles to attend. It’s why hundreds of millions around the blue planet will watch on various electronic devices at all hours for four weeks.
Goodness was on display before four minutes had transpired in the Portugal-Morocco match as that handsome devil, Cristiano Ronaldo, continued his hellacious start to this tournament by ditching a defender and nodding a cross into the net.
His fourth goal in two games stood up, but just barely, as Portugal dodged one threat after another before escaping with a 1-0 victory.
With four points, the European champions are on the cusp of a round-of-16 berth out of Group B — and a possible showdown with goal-happy Russia.
“If we lost, we could be out,” Ronaldo said. Instead, “we’re almost there.”
Now the bad: Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, the disgraced former president of FIFA, soccer’s tainted governing body, arrived in Russia to attend two matches this week.
In doing so, he has cast a shadow over a cheery tournament and rekindled dark memories of a corruption scandal that paralyzed the sport three years ago and resulted in numerous federal indictments.
Found guilty by FIFA of financial misconduct, Blatter, 82, is banned from serving in the sport for another 3½ years. Nothing, however, prevents him from buying a ticket or accepting an invitation to watch in a VIP area. In this case, the latter applied.
Who would invite him? Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Blatter had helped steer support for Russia’s World Cup bid which, like Qatar’s victory in the race to host the 2022 tournament, was marred by bribe allegations. (Putin did not attend Wednesday.)
Blatter’s name wasn’t on the official list of VIPs in attendance, issued by FIFA at kickoff. While Gianni Infantino, Blatter’s successor, watched from FIFA’s suite, Blatter was elsewhere on the luxury level. He also plans to attend the Brazil-Costa Rica affair Friday in St. Petersburg.
Attempting to rehabilitate his career — and perhaps troll the current FIFA leadership — he has agreed to several interviews, signed autographs and posed for photographs. FIFA hasn’t commented on his presence.
Okay, back to the match. Ronaldo provided the lead on a six-yard header, his 85th goal (in 152 appearances) to set European soccer’s all-time scoring record in international matches. He had been tied with Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas (84 in 85 matches from 1945 to ’56).
Bernardo Silva played a short corner to Joao Moutinho, who whipped a cross to the edge of the six-yard box. Manuel da Costa lost track of Ronaldo, a blunder that, given the distance, was deadly.
A day earlier, Morocco Coach Herve Renard said his team must make Ronaldo “less exceptional.” It failed.
After the match, Renard said, “The most gifted players are the ones who make all the difference.”
Aside from Portugal’s opponents, Ronaldo is locked in an unofficial competition with his fellow megastar, Argentina’s Lionel Messi. So far, it’s a blowout. The Real Madrid forward leads the tournament in goals; Messi missed a penalty and was largely contained by Iceland on Saturday.
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