Portugal’s hopes of challenging for a first Fifa Men’s World Cup title will likely be heavily dictated by how well they deal with the drama surrounding their talisman Cristiano Ronaldo. The 2016 European champions are in an accessible group where their main rivals are Uruguay, the country that dumped them out in the last 16 four years ago.

The recent record for Portugal at the World Cup makes for sorry reading, with just a combined three wins in three appearances since reaching the semi-finals in 2006.

And while they boast international football’s record goalscorer in Ronaldo, questions abound as to whether the 37-year-old should still be the team’s primary option in attack.

The five-time Ballon d’Or winner has started on the bench more often than not for Manchester United this season, and has yet to score in the knockout phase at a World Cup. Perhaps the fact that his United career is over officially now, might help put a period at the end of that epsiode.

Ronaldo and coach Fernando Santos were criticised after Portugal missed out on a place in the Nations League finals following a home loss to neighbours Spain in September.

With a wealth of talent and Ronaldo leading the way for almost two decades now, Portugal belong among the world’s best teams but have a reputation as underachievers despite winning Euro 2016 and the Nations League three years later.

“We definitely are a generation with a lot of talent, but other teams have talent, too,” Manchester City defender Ruben Dias told the FIFA website.

“You can have the best players in the competition, but if you don’t know how to make the most of the strengths of each player, then you won’t be able to operate properly as a team. People will see you as just another ordinary team.”

Beaten by a Zinedine Zidane penalty in the last four of the 2006 World Cup, Portugal have not gone beyond the last 16 since. They risk facing Brazil at that stage in Qatar if they fail to top Group H above Uruguay, South Korea and Ghana.

Uruguay’s old guard

Uruguay, world champions in 1930 and 1950, turned to Diego Alonso to rescue their faltering qualifying campaign after parting with the long-serving Oscar Tabarez, and sealed their spot at a fourth consecutive finals with four straight wins.

They will rely on a blend of youth and experience. The 36-year-old Diego Godin is captain of a side that also includes Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, all of whom were part of Uruguay’s run to the 2010 semi-finals —- their best performance since coming fourth in 1970.

Fede Valverde, who has been in outstanding form this season for Real Madrid, and Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez are among the new faces set for their World Cup bow.

“We have a mix of experienced players and quality. I think Uruguay can have a great World Cup,” said Suarez, whose 2014 tournament ended early after a four-month ban for biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini.

Uruguay overcame South Korea and Ghana to reach the last four in South Africa, where Suarez’s infamous handball at the end of extra time prevented the Black Stars from becoming the first African nation to make the semi-finals.

Ghana’s chances of emulating that performance 12 years on look remote. Sitting 61st, Otto Addo’s side are the lowest ranked of the 32 teams present in Qatar.

German-born Addo, who juggles his role as Ghana coach with his job at Borussia Dortmund, has turned to members of the diaspora to bolster a squad that failed to get past the Africa Cup of Nations group stage in January.

Athletic Bilbao striker Inaki Williams, capped once by Spain in 2016, and former England Under-21 international Tariq Lamptey of Brighton have switched allegiances.

South Korea will play at their 10th World Cup in a row, but an injury to captain and talisman Son Heung-min threatens to ruin their campaign.

The Tottenham Hotspur forward fractured his eye socket and was an injury doubt after undergoing surgery. Son, who shared last season’s Premier League golden boot with Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, has trained recently with a face-mask and is expected to now feature.

Son Heung Min (C) training | AFP photo

Country profile – Portugal

Best World Cup performance: Third place in 1966

Other honours: European Championship winners in 2016; UEFA Nations League winners in 2019

FIFA ranking: 9

Main clubs: Benfica, Porto, Sporting

How they qualified: Finished second in European qualifying Group A behind Serbia, and then beat Turkey and North Macedonia in the play-offs.

Coach: Fernando Santos, 68, succeeded Paulo Bento as Portugal coach in 2014. He turned a team that had disappointed at the 2014 World Cup into European champions in 2016. Also won the Nations League in 2019 but they went out of the last World Cup and Euro 2020 in the last 16. A qualified engineer, Santos is sometimes derided for not being bold enough with a team full of attacking talent. Spent most of his playing career at modest Estoril. As a coach he won a league title at Porto and worked at Sporting but he also managed several clubs in Greece before four years with the Greek national team. He led them to the knockout stages of Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup.

Key player: Cristiano Ronaldo is the all-time leading goalscorer in international football with 117 goals in a record 191 caps for his country. He has enjoyed a magnificent career but he is now 37 and has endured a difficult start to the season at Manchester United that has now ended. A five-time Ballon d’Or winner, Ronaldo made his Portugal debut in 2003 at the age of 18 and is now set to play at his 10th major international tournament. He is the key player but one wonders if his presence might hold back the many other outstanding – and far younger – talents in the Portugal squad.

Group fixtures:

November 24: Portugal v Ghana

November 28: Portugal v Uruguay

December 2: South Korea v Portugal


Goalkeepers: Diogo Costa, Jose Sa, Rui Patricio

Defenders: Diogo Dalot, Joao Cancelo, Danilo Pereira, Pepe, Ruben Dias, Antonio Silva, Nuno Mendes, Raphael Guerreiro

Midfielders: Joao Palhinha, Ruben Neves, Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Joao Mario, Matheus Nunes, Vitinha, William Carvalho, Otavio

Forwards: Cristiano Ronaldo, Joao Felix, Rafael Leao, Ricardo Horta, Goncalo Ramos, Andre Silva

Country profile – Ghana

Best World Cup performance: Quarter-finalists in 2010

Other honours: African champions in 1963, 1965, 1978, 1982

FIFA ranking: 61

Main clubs: Asante Kotoko, Hearts of Oak

How they qualified: Ghana defeated Nigeria in a play-off

Coach: Former Ghana World Cup midfielder Otto Addo, 47, who had never been a head coach, faced a baptism of fire as the Black Stars’ boss last February, inheriting a demoralised squad after a stunning loss to the Comoros condemned the four-time African champions to a first-round exit from the 2021 Cup of Nations. Defying the odds, they drew twice with arch rivals Nigeria to qualify on away goals. Addo has failed to convince many Ghanaians, though, that he can take the side beyond the first round and the national football association organised two national days of prayer and fasting – one for Christians and another for Muslims – to galvanise support.

Key player: Opponents of Ghana who consider Thomas Partey, 29, just a defensive midfielder would do well to watch a clip from the recent 5-0 drubbing Arsenal dished out to Nottingham Forest. The Gunners were three goals up when the former Atletico Madrid star, who became a Gunner in 2020, unleashed an unstoppable shot into the roof of the net. The memorable goal confirmed the opinion of long-serving Atletico manager Diego Simeone that the humble footballer from a village in eastern Ghana is “extraordinary when defending or attacking, providing assists, passing, shooting and scoring”. Partey was so eager to play in Europe that he forgot to tell his parents he was leaving west Africa until he arrived in Spain 10 years ago.

Group fixtures:

November 24: Portugal v Ghana

November 28: South Korea v Ghana

December 2: Ghana v Uruguay


Goalkeepers: Lawrence Ati, Danlad Ibrahim, Manaf Nurudeen

Defenders: Joseph Aidoo, Daniel Amartey, Baba Rahman, Alexander Djiku, Tariq Lamptey, Gideon Mensah, Denis Odoi, Mohammed Salisu, Alidu Seidu

Midfielders: Andre Ayew, Mohammed Kudus, Daniel-Kofi Kyereh, Elisha Owusu, Thomas Partey, Salis Abdul Samed

Forwards: Daniel Afriyie, Jordan Ayew, Osman Bukari, Issahaku Abdul Fatawu, Antoine Semenyo, Kamal Sowah, Kamaldeen Sulemana, Inaki Williams

Country profile – Uruguay

Best World Cup performance: Winners in 1930, 1950

Other honours:  Copa America winners in 1916, 1917, 1920, 1923, 1924, 1926, 1935, 1942, 1956, 1959, 1967, 1983, 1987, 1995, 2011

FIFA ranking: 14

Main clubs: Penarol, Nacional, Defensor Sporting, Danubio

How they qualified: Uruguay finished third in the single South American qualification group

Coach: Diego Alonso, 47, was appointed in December last year after iconic veteran boss Oscar Tabarez – who guided Uruguay to their last Copa America success – was sacked following a disastrous run of qualifying defeats. Alonso’s impact was immediate, following four straight defeats from Tabarez’s last games in charge with four successive victories. The ‘Tornado’ had saved Uruguay’s qualification campaign. “Everyone says that the most important thing in football is winning,” he told La Diaria newspaper in September. “I go one step further: the most important thing in football is preparing to win.”

Key player: With Uruguay’s top two goalscorers of all time, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, both 35 and playing in their last World Cup, Real Madrid midfielder Federico Valverde is the new talisman for this team. Now 24, the hard-working six-foot tall central midfielder is crucial for club and country. Already a Champions League winner and two-time Spanish champion, Valverde’s increasingly mature performances have made him the key cog in Alonso’s team.

Group fixtures:

November 24: Uruguay v South Korea

November 28: Portugal v Uruguay

December 2: Ghana v Uruguay


Goalkeepers: Fernando Muslera, Sergio Rochet, Sebastian Sosa

Defenders: Ronald Araujo, Sebastian Coates, Martin Caceres, Guillermo Varela, Matias Vina, Mathias Olivera, Jose Maria Gimenez, Diego Godin, Jose Luis Rodríguez

Midfielders: Lucas Torreira, Matias Vecino, Rodrigo Bentancur, Manuel Ugarte, Giorgian de Arrascaeta, Nicolas de la Cruz, Federico Valverde , Facundo Pellistri, Agustin Canobbio, Facundo Torres

Forwards: Luis Suarez, Darwin Nunez, Maximiliano Gomez, Edinson Cavani

Country profile – Korea Republic

Best World Cup performance: Fourth place in 2002

Other honours:  Asian champions in 1956, 1960

FIFA ranking: 28

Main clubs: Jeonbuk Motors, Ulsan, FC Seoul, Pohang Steelers

How they qualified: South Korea finished second behind Iran in Asian qualifying Group A

Coach: Paulo Bento, 53, was appointed in 2018. The former international midfielder started his managerial career with Sporting Lisbon in his native Portugal. Coached Portugal from 2010 to 2014 and had spells in Brazil, Greece and China, before South Korea came calling. Bento was in charge of a Portugal team at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil that boasted Cristiano Ronaldo, but they failed to get out of the group stage, having been thumped 4-0 by eventual champions Germany and held 2-2 by the United States. He lasted just one more game, a 1-0 home defeat to Albania in a European Championship qualifier, before he was sacked. Will be eager for revenge when South Korea face Portugal in Group H.

Key player: Son Heung-min is the undoubted star man but his World Cup and is now expected to play despite a facial injury that required recent surgery. The Spurs forward is captain of his country and their talisman. Son has scored 35 times in 104 appearances for South Korea. 

Group fixtures:

November 24: Uruguay v South Korea

November 28: South Korea v Ghana

December 2: South Korea v Portugal


Goalkeepers: Kim Seung-Gyu, Jo Hyeon-Woo, Song Bum-Keun

Defenders: Kim Min-Jae, Kim Young-Gwon, Kwon Kyung-Won, Cho Yu-Min, Kim Moon-Hwan, Yoon Jong-Gyu, Kim Tae-Hwan, Kim Jin-Su, Hong Chul

Midfielders: Jung Woo-Young, Son Jun-Ho, Paik Seung-Ho, Hwang In-Beom, Lee Jae-Sung, Kwon Chang-Hoon, Jeong Woo-Yeong, Lee Kang-In, Son Heung-Min, Hwang Hee-Chan, Na Sang-Ho, Song Min-Kyu.

Forwards: Hwang Ui-Jo, Cho Gue-Sung.

With text inputs from AFP