One of the most eagerly anticipated games of the opening days of the 2018 World Cup did not disappoint as Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick, made history and earned Portugal a draw in an enthralling contest against a Spain side eager to put a tumultuous week behind them.
The Real Madrid star, aiming to lead his country to glory in what is likely to be his final World Cup, scored from a fourth-minute penalty which he himself earned and put Portugal ahead once again after Spain goalkeeper David de Gea carelessly allowed his long-range effort to slip through his fingers.
But with Spain leading 3-2 thanks to a Diego Costa brace and a superb 30-yard effort from Nacho, Ronaldo stepped up with just minutes remaining to magically curl a freekick into the top corner and pull his country back from the brink of defeat.
It should come as no surprise that the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, scorer of 43 goals for Real Madrid this season and widely regarded as one of the greatest to have played the game, etched his name into the history books in the process — becoming the first man to score in eight consecutive major tournaments and only the fourth to score in four separate World Cups.
It was also the 51st hat-trick in World Cup history — and the 51st of the forward’s glorious career.
The result puts Group B — currently topped by Iran who beat Morocco 1-0 earlier Friday — in the balance, though both reigning European champions Portugal and 2010 World Cup winners Spain will be expected to progress to the knockout stages.
A week like no other for Spain
It had been an eventful week for former champions Spain, one of the World Cup favorites before the Spanish Football Association surprisingly sacked its manager 48 hours before the start of the tournament.
Julen Lopetegui, unbeaten in his 20 games in charge of the Spaniards coming into this tournament, had angered president Luis Rubiales, who had felt “compelled” to dismiss the 51-year-old after finding out mere minutes before the official announcement that Lopetegui would succeed Zinedine Zidane as Real Madrid boss.
From his role as director of football, former Spain and Real defender Fernando Hierro moved into the hotseat, claiming that he planned to “change as little as possible” and that his team would “fight for the World Cup.”
Describing the atmosphere of a news conference as a funeral on the eve of the competition, captain Sergio Ramos had to remind the media assembled that his team was about to compete in his sport’s biggest competition.
Any pessimistic Spanish heart would have sunk further within minutes of this brilliant match starting as Ronaldo scored from the spot, having forced Nacho into a calamitous tackle with a cute stepover.
There was little gloom among Spain’s players, however, as they displayed a mastery of the ball for which they are famed and superbly equalized through Costa.
The Atletico Madrid striker raced onto a long ball after a tussle with defender Pepe — some called for a foul — and twisted and turned before firing low into the corner for what was his first shot on target at a World Cup.
Portugal — aiming to become only the fourth country to win the European Championship and World Cup back-to-back — were always dangerous on the counter-attack and it was a rapid move into opposition territory which ultimately led to their second, giving them possession in the final third.
Ronaldo’s low shot shouldn’t have led to a goal, but De Gea, regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the world, allowed the ball to slip through his fingers and momentum swung back Portugal’s way.
Spain, however, epitomized the fighting spirit their new manager spoke of in the build up to the match and struck in the 55th minute after a David Silva free-kick allowed Sergio Busquets to head the ball across goal for Costa to tap in from four yards.
Three minutes later Nacho struck to make amends for his earlier error only for Ronaldo to steal the show and further enhance his status as one of the finest to ever have played the beautiful game.