Nike’s World Cup ad features a football-off between Kylian Mbappé and Ronaldinho, who gets to appear and compete in his prime thanks to the magic of deaging software. There are two Cristiano Ronaldos in the ad as well, passing to each other and hitting a bicycle kick, though it’s not clear whether their performances were computer-enhanced.
The flesh-and-blood Ronaldo who captained Portugal at Lusail also looked at times as though he had been enhanced by deaging CGI. Unfortunately it was not the Nike edition, but whatever software package was used for that memorable scene in The Irishman where Robert de Niro, with the face of a 40-year old and the movements of a 75-year old, beats up a shop owner who has insulted his daughter.
A great player can take a small country a long way in international football. Ronaldo carried Portugal to the final of Euro 2016, Luis Suárez helped Uruguay to the World Cup semis in 2010 and the Copa America in 2011.
So indebted does the small country sometimes feel to the great player that they continue picking him long after they should have moved on. This is especially true when a long-serving coach owes his greatest success to the player, as is the case with Portugal coach Fernando Santos and Ronaldo.
Suárez doesn’t have the same hold over Diego Alonso, who has only been Uruguay coach since 2021. After his team’s stale performance in their opener against South Korea, Alonso dropped Suárez and his fellow four-time World Cup veteran Martin Caceres, changed formation from 4-5-1 to 5-3-2 and moved Darwin Nuñez into the middle alongside Edinson Cavani.
The idea was to keep Portugal’s slow, patient build-up at bay and then release Darwin on the break into the space behind. The first problem is that when you win the ball you need to pass it forward into that space. Uruguay found this almost impossible. The second is that if you do make the pass, the forward then needs to control it. Darwin found this almost impossible.
Portugal owned the ball, and whenever they lost it Uruguay gave it back like a dog playing fetch. The most exciting moment of the first half came when Rodrigo Bentancur decided to break the dismal pattern and dribble forward from midfield, beating two men at the edge of the box only to shoot straight at Diogo Costa.
Early in the second half a fan ran on the pitch brandishing a rainbow flag and wearing a pro-Ukraine T-shirt, before being tackled and led away by stewards. Did the interruption disrupt Uruguay’s focus? In the very next move, Portugal scored. Of course, it took an accident to break the deadlock.
Bruno Fernandes spun at the corner of the box and clipped an inswinger towards the far post. Ronaldo beat the offside trap and leapt for the ball, but didn’t quite get there and the cross bounced into the corner.
Ronaldo celebrated as though he had scored – but although his movement had undoubtedly put off Sergio Alvarez in Uruguay’s goal, you have to touch the ball to be credited with the goal. The stadium match feed initially awarded the goal to Ronaldo, but you could see there had been no change to the spin on the ball. A minute later an announcement credited the goal to Bruno Fernandes.
With Uruguay’s Plan A now in ruins, winger Facundo Pellistri replaced centre back Diego Godin and changed to 4-3-3. Moments later Pellistri and Guillermo Varela combined to produce an enticing cross which floated across the six yard line ... and was attacked by nobody. Some distance away Darwin stood on his heels, watching the ball much as a sheep might watch a passing train.
Alonso threw on Suárez, who proceeded to offer more goal threat in five minutes than Darwin had in the preceding 73. But he couldn’t score his best chance, shooting wide at the near post after Gimenez had ducked a free kick into the box. Still, with Maxi Gomez hitting the post from range and Varela wasting a good chance after being put through by Valverde, Uruguay were looking more dangerous. Ronaldo was subbed on 82 minutes as Santos tried to protect the lead.
Imagine Ronaldo’s irritation when Portugal were awarded a ridiculous VAR penalty in the 91st minute, the referee punishing Gimenez for the ball hitting a hand he had extended behind himself to break his fall as he challenged. Bruno Fernandes scored again for 2-0. He hit the post again in the 98th.
Portugal are through, while Uruguay and Suárez must beat Ghana, the team they cheated with that goal line handball in the last minute of the 2010 quarter-final, to have any chance.