The opening night in Sochi brought one of the competition’s great games, from the “funeral parlour” in Sergio Ramos’s words, to the fiesta – a match in which the first goal came after just three minutes, the last came in the 90th, and there were four more between them, in which there might even have been another after that, Cristiano Ronaldo nodding just wide.
He’d got enough already. As the front page of the Spanish sports daily AS put it: “Too little luck, too much Ronaldo.” His hat-trick, completed with that wonderful late free-kick, was just one of the many stories to come from a game that also had two goals from Diego Costa – “We’ve been waiting for you,” cheered Marca – a dreadful error from David de Gea, Isco’s “wonky walk” and lovely touch, Gonçalo Guedes’s pace and Jordi Alba’s whirring legs. “And,” said Marca, “Nacho was Cafu”. That might have been pushing it a little, but he did score a superb goal – the stand-in right-back hitting the ball beautifully. Above all, there was the sense that there is much more to come. Spain’s World Cup is not over. And nor is Portugal’s.
‘Too little luck, too much Ronaldo’
And all of it, of course, after one of the most bizarre buildups to a World Cup in recent memory. These had been “delicate days”, Ramos admitted. The then Spain manager, Julen Lopetegui, had agreed to join Real Madrid and been sacked for it and in which three more Portugal players – William Carvalho, Gelson Martins, Bruno Fernandes – joined goalkeeper Rui Patrício in announcing that they were leaving Sporting Lisbon, where the confrontation with the president was even worse than the ones leaking out of Spain’s Krasnodar HQ.
There was more. On the day before the match, Spain’s new manager, Fernando Hierro, gave a press conference, and then, less than an hour later, so did Spain’s former manager, the cycle of accusations never ending. And then on the morning of the game, news came that Ronaldo had reached an agreement with the state prosecutor to pay €18.8m and accept a suspended two-year prison sentence for tax evasion. The timing felt significant, maybe even a little suspicious. After all the damage Spanish football had done to its own national team, maybe the state was helping out? Unity had been the word; “the national team is everybody’s,” as the slogan goes. Another one insists – and, yes, this is real – “the tax office is all of us”.
It didn’t put Ronaldo off. Within four minutes he had scored his first, from the penalty. He had made it too, running at Nacho and going over him. “I know I touched him but I tried to pull my leg out,” Nacho said afterwards. Gerard Piqué noted: “He was hardly touched. Ronaldo has a habit of diving and he almost always gets the decisions.” He also got a second and a third, Spain twice coming from behind and eventually leading until Ronaldo’s free-kick hit the net. “It came when we were most comfortable, keeping possession for a long time. But when there’s a star like that on the pitch, the game can change. It’s lucky for whoever has him.”
For Spain, it was unlucky. It could also have done them further damage, but there was also satisfaction in the way that they had responded to the crisis, and the setback of an early goal and then De Gea’s mistake just before half-time. Hierro talked about his “pride” in the “personality” his team – “a family”, he called it – had shown.
“It’s a question of character”, A draw isn’t bad either – Spain lost their opening game in 2010 and went on to win the tournament.
“It’s not all bad news. The most important thing was not to lose after everything that’s happened,” Piqué said. “It is difficult when you go a goal down after three minutes but we stood up to be counted and we played very well.”
Piqué also defended De Gea, after his mistake gifted the second goal to Ronaldo. It was the third time in four games that he has been at fault for goals. “Better now than at the World Cup,” he had said after an error against Switzerland in a recent friendly, but this time it hurt. Piqué, though, was unequivocal. “There is no doubt and no debate: he’s our goalkeeper, he has proven himself for years, he’s the best,” the defender said. Ramos too rallied to him, tweeting: “It’s not about never making mistakes; it’s about never giving up”.
De Gea, though, appeared affected afterwards, not just in what he said but the way he said it. “If for one mistake you’re going to change the goalkeeper…” he responded when he was asked about the error. “I’m calm, ready for the next game. One day you’re ‘very bad’, the next day you’re ‘very good’. I haven’t killed anyone.”