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Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Spain Was the Wake-up Call the World Cup Needed

A battle between a superstar and a superteam kicked the tournament into full gear

Portugal v Spain: Group B - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Forget about Russia drubbing Saudi Arabia 5–0 in Thursday’s opener or Uruguay’s late goal to push them past Egypt and Iran’s stolen win over Morocco earlier on Friday. The World Cup started when Cristiano Ronaldo launched a penalty past David de Gea, and the tournament broke into a dead sprint 20 minutes later when Diego Costa first threw Pepe to the ground and then beat two more Portuguese defenders before ripping a goal.

Whereas the early slate featured fine, if uninspiring, play, Spain’s 3–3 draw against Portugal on Friday had enough excitement to make even the least-interested spectator a devout follower of the Church of Goal. Only two games in this summer’s group stage feature teams ranked in FIFA’s top 10. This was one of them. And, man, did it live up to the hype.

Costa, a brute with a bazooka on the end of his leg, scored twice to match Ronaldo through the first 87 minutes of play. But the Madrid star had other plans. Down 2–3 in the 88th minute, he drilled a free kick, bending it over a Spanish wall and down into the top corner to escape with a point. It was his third goal of the game, and the one most likely to be replayed during commercials for the next few weeks.

Portugal has always been seen as a one-man army, and they leaned into that narrative on Friday. On a handful of scoring opportunities, Ronaldo laid the ball off to his teammates. When they didn’t deliver, he took command. Ronaldo’s hat trick on Friday was the first ever against Spain in a World Cup. Not bad for a guy who learned just before the match that he’d been handed a £16.4 million fine and two years of suspended jail time as punishment for evading taxes.

Spain, to their credit, played, well, Spanish soccer. They held 66.5 percent possession and sliced through the Portuguese defense with the tiki-taka formula they used to take the world by storm a decade ago. Thirty-one minutes into the game, they’d completed more passes than Iran attempted in their 1–0 win over Morocco. By the end of regulation, they’d successfully passed 698 times. Portugal tried for only 372. Had it not been for a de Gea error on a Ronaldo worm-burner, Spain may have taken three points.

After Costa drew them level after the half, it was Nacho, the same man who pulled Ronaldo to the turf and gave away a penalty just minutes after the opening whistle, who redeemed himself. He met a bouncing ball and uncorked a rocket through the Portuguese defense. Rui Patrício never had a chance.

There have been few constants in international soccer over the past 10 years. Lionel Messi scores goals galore, but has never lifted a trophy with his national team. Germany uses a team made up of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund stars and imposes their will on helpless opponents. Spain takes the greatest collection of talent in any generation the sport has ever seen and changes the way the game was played. And Ronaldo puts balls in the back of the net, lifting his teammates to heights they have no business reaching.

FiveThirtyEight gives Spain and Portugal 88 and 73 percent odds, respectively, to make it out of Group B, up from 87 and 68 percent before the game began. And those feel like conservative estimates. Iran may still have a chance on paper, but if Spain or Portugal play like they did today, Iran’s odds seem akin to Villanova’s against the Golden State Warriors.

The allure of the World Cup isn’t that it offers a superior brand of soccer. Demanding a national team to spend the time or resources to create the same kind of visual experience fans can expect from derbies in top-flight European leagues is a tough ask. But when everything clicks — when an all-time great is launching free kicks from 30 yards and a team of playmakers moves the ball with style — there might not be anything better.