FIFA president Gianni Infantino was something of a surprise visitor behind the scenes at Kazan Arena on Sunday. The anticipation of the Confederations Cup’s first real spectacle was enough to tempt him down from St Petersburg and bring more than 34,000 people into the stands.
He won’t have been disappointed.
In a game not always bursting at the seams with quality, there was plenty of entertainment value. It will come as little surprise that Cristiano Ronaldo and Javier Hernandez were at the heart of it, although it will raise a few eyebrows that only one of them scored in the 2-2 draw.
Both were involved in the main moments, though. Ronaldo got the crowd roaring and set up Ricardo Quaresma’s opener. Hernandez also missed a clear chance for a winner before Ronaldo started the move that led to Cedric Soares’ deflected late strike. The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) also made another confusing appearance after Ronaldo had hit the crossbar. He was duly voted Man of the Match by the watching fans.
Hector Moreno denied the European champions the win but certainly gave FIFA something to celebrate. In terms of drama, this was a match worthy of the tournament of champions.
It’s been made very clear this week that the cacophonous chatter around Ronaldo’s club future would not interfere with Portugal’s plans. Fernando Santos vouched for him “100 per cent as an athlete and a man” and said there was a cast-iron agreement not to bring outside concerns into the camp.
Ronaldo himself looked inscrutable as he lined up long-range sighters in the warm-up, with both sets of fans making a racket as his name was read out, and that furious devotion to the simple task of playing football shone through.
It was his ferocious half-volley against the woodwork that led to Nani’s disallowed opener, with VAR deployed to rule out the goal, it would appear, for offside. Confusion around the referral and the reason why the effort was not allowed to stand highlight the problems the system still has, but it certainly added to the spectacle.
Ronaldo soon had better luck. Although his drive towards goal ended in a stumble, he showed great composure and precision to pick out Quaresma. With the Mexico back three having all been dragged to the Portugal captain, Quaresma had an easy task to side-step Guillermo Ochoa and score.
Mexico looked winded to have fallen behind after their early dominance and Quaresma almost scored a second from a Ronaldo backheel, but Hernandez showcased his predatory instincts to head in Carlos Vela’s cross to level. He should have had a second before half-time, skewing a shot over the bar from eight yards out as anguished Mexican cries rang out. It all heightened the drama that this tournament needs.
Juan Carlos Osorio’s side enjoyed more of the ball in the second half, but there was little by way of control from either side. Portugal looked a threat on the break and could have regained their lead when Ronaldo set up Quaresma again, although Giovani dos Santos wasted a good chance of his own.
What was gratifying, though, was that the pace did not let up. This was a showdown of two teams who have come to Russia to win, not fine-tune preparations for the World Cup. Just as Osorio had predicted pre-match, this was not a defensive encounter.
In the closing stages, Portugal were rewarded for some sustained pressure. Ronaldo released Gelson Martins and his cut-back was blocked into Cedric’s path, allowing the full-back to fire a deflected effort beyond Ochoa. It showed the benefits of a bold approach and Mexico were duly rewarded for the same, with Moreno heading home from a corner following a late assault on Rui Patricio’s goal.
A draw suits Mexico better as they prepare to face New Zealand next, but regardless, this was an enjoyable spectacle between two teams with ambitions of lifting the trophy and it will serve as a welcome tonic to the watching Infantino.