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Cristiano Ronaldo rolled up his shorts. Spanish players quivered in fear. And an entire planet waited, breath momentarily elusive, eyes wide in anticipation.
The moment Olympic Stadium clocks struck 87:00 on Friday in Sochi was the moment we, as sports fans, live for. An outcome, a narrative, and sporting history were at the foot, and at the mercy, of a transcendent, polarizing player. Emotions, and quite possibly GOAT rankings, rested on his next move.
And Ronaldo, like only he can, delivered.
Soccer, like only it can, delivered on Friday. Months of buildup had burdened Friday’s World Cup showdown between Spain and Portugal with almost unmeetable expectations. It surpassed all of them.
It had everything. The two European rivals and neighbors gave us drama and dizzying twists of fate. They gave us megastar power and villain-on-villain crime. They gave us nauseating mistakes and atonement.
They showcased the best of a sport whose lows can be dreadfully low, but whose highs soar above all else.
[More World Cup coverage: Day 2 roundup]
There was an oh so American line of thinking heading into the 2018 World Cup that the tournament would underwhelm with the U.S. absent. There were countless articles and advertisements advising grieving USMNT fans to adopt a team to cheer on in Russia.
And then there were two hours on Friday afternoon that exposed all of that as nonsense. Soccer, as a sport, is dependent on nobody – no team, no individual, no single storyline. Artificial rooting interests are unnecessary. Not when the beautiful game can deliver spectacles like Spain-Portugal.
Its beauty is not incessant. Two relatively drab games earlier in the day reminded us of that. But the beauty invariably rises out of the monotony. If you sat through six hours of soccer on Friday, you didn’t come away ruing the first four; you came away buzzing, because those first four made the final two – two of the greatest hours in World Cup history – all the more riveting, and all the more enjoyable.
And that’s why we, the millions who witnessed Portugal 3, Spain 3 on Friday, were the real winners of the 2018 World Cup’s first full day.
Is that a selfish way of looking at things? Eh. Maybe. But it’s the most succinct way to explain how gripping Friday’s whirlwind was. We’ll pick apart the match shortly. But the one universally held opinion coming away from it was: Wow. Just … wow.
Neither Spain nor Portugal came away with three points. Neither is comfortably through to the knockout round. Neither was definitively superior. But both did their duty to soccer, and to us. In the end, sport is entertainment. And Friday’s actors, from Ronaldo to Nacho Fernandez and everybody in between, blew away their audience with one of the most splendid performances the world has ever seen.
Winners: Spain and Portugal
Both teams are also winners. Not to the degree either would have liked, especially when they held their respective second-half leads – Portugal at 2-1 after 50 minutes, Spain at 3-2 after 80.
But the one result neither could afford was a loss. And rather than mutually achieve that objective in a conventional way, by engaging in a cagey, cautious sparring match, both did so in the most thrilling way imaginable. Both looked good doing it, too. Portugal showed more counterattacking bite than expected. Spain, which could have been reeling from the firing of its coach just two days earlier, responded to adversity with both zeal and style.
Neither looked vulnerable. And with the lesser of the Group B challengers winning hours earlier, both European giants remain clear favorites to advance.
Winner: Cristiano Ronaldo
Ronaldo, once and for all, put to bed any remnants of the silly narrative that he can’t perform at major international tournaments. In 90 minutes, he doubled his career World Cup goal tally. He became the oldest player to scored a World Cup hat trick.
With the score 3-2 to Spain, his first-half brace could have been passed off as lucky. But Ronaldo foiled that counterargument with a stroke of genius.
Winner: Ronaldo’s reputation
And not only did he flip World Cup narratives on their heads. He had haters eating their words just three minutes into the game. His tumble in the penalty box sure looked like a dive on first viewing – especially given Ronaldo’s penchant for embellishment:
But second replays clearly showed Nacho clipped Ronaldo’s right foot with his mistimed tackle, and made Ronaldo detractors think twice before they accuse him of flopping next time he throws himself to the turf.
There was, of course, another incident that was more dubious – one that led Gerard Pique to say post-match that Ronaldo “is prone to throwing himself [to the ground].” But perhaps the legitimacy of the penalty primed the referee to trust Ronaldo and his falls.
Cristiano Ronaldo was otherworldly on Friday. And whenever Cristiano Ronaldo does superhuman things, Lionel Messi almost always responds with superhumanness of his own.
Messi and Argentina, conveniently, face Iceland tomorrow. So wish the World Cup debutants some luck … because they’ll need it.
Winner: Diego Costa
Diego Costa failed to impress at his first World Cup with Spain four years ago. Heading into Russia, there were questions about whether the mercurial striker would start. But he did, and he repaid his manager’s – managers’? – faith. He nabbed two of Spain’s three goals, and the first was vintage Costa:
And just like that, there are no more question marks. Spain has its No. 9. He might not jibe with the Plan A. But he’s a darn good Plan B – which, on Friday, was even more useful.
Loser: Pepe’s reputation
Was there a foul by Costa on Portuguese defender Pepe in the buildup to the goal? Did Costa’s elbow catch Pepe’s face as they both elevated?
Maybe, maybe not. A key factor in the referee’s decision to swallow his whistle, though, may have been Pepe’s reputation for theatrics. He rolled around on the ground, clutching his head. Then again, Pepe loves to roll around on the ground, clutching his head. And he was clutching a different part of his head than the one Costa’s elbow might have contacted. Refs use relevant information like this on 50/50, split-second calls. There’s every chance this was one of those cases.
Doubts about the use of video review, or VAR, at the 2018 World Cup have so far proved unfounded. Reviews have been executed seamlessly, without interrupting games.
Ronaldo’s penalty and Costa’s goal were prime examples. Delays were minimal. And although both (non-)calls were disputable, neither was a “clear and obvious” error. The video assistant referees correctly upheld both, and nobody whined about VAR one bit.
Winner: Lopetegui’s legacy?
Spain equalized with a wonderfully engineered set-piece routine:
And who was its architect? Surely it wasn’t caretaker manager Fernando Hierro, who took over just two days ago. It had to have been ousted manager Julen Lopetegui, right? Hierro’s lineup and system was also more or less Lopetegui’s. So perhaps the newly-appointed Real Madrid boss had his hands on Friday’s game more than we realize.
Loser: Luis Suarez
Uruguay won the day’s early game on an 89th-minute header from Jose Maria Gimenez. But it only required the late winner because Luis Suarez had a no good, very bad day at the office. He spurned not one, not two, but three glorious chances to give La Celeste the lead.
Whereas Suarez has bailed out his international teammates countless times in the past, this time it was their turn to bail him out.
Loser: Uruguay’s new-look midfield
The vast majority of Uruguay intrigue heading into the World Cup was a byproduct of its young midfield of Matias Vecino, Rodrigo Bentancur, Nahitan Nandez and Giorgian De Arrascaeta. The thought was that with more technical skill in the middle of the park, the Uruguayans would be more potent against bus-parkers, and less reliant on Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
But Nandez and De Arrascaeta both struggled mightily, and were yanked off before the hour mark. Uruguay couldn’t break down Egypt’s low block. That was mildly worrying.
But Uruguay as a team? It’ll be fine. It created plenty of chances. It played well enough to win comfortable. And its knockout-round threat isn’t based on that midfield anyway. It’s based on Suarez and Cavani, and Gimenez and Diego Godin.
The three points all but ensure Uruguay’s progression to the Round of 16, and once there, the South Americans will be dangerous.
Loser: Bouhaddouz, Morocco
Morocco was a popular sleeper heading into the tournament. And the first 20 minutes of its opener against Iran seemed to validate the hype. The Atlas Lions were superior in every sense of the word, except on the score sheet.
And when they failed to convert superiority into a goal, their threat level waned. And at the death, substitute striker Aziz Bouhaddouz accidentally executed a majestic diving header … into his own net:
Neither Morocco-Iran nor Uruguay-Egypt had much quality. On a special day of soccer, even their dramatic endings reminded us why we love the sport.
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More World Cup on Yahoo Sports:
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• Report: Cristiano Ronaldo avoids jail time in tax fraud case
• How Vladimir Putin is already winning the World Cup
• Egypt star Mo Salah misses first World Cup match