LUSAIL, Qatar — Cristiano Ronaldo went through the motions. There he went, wheeling away in delight, his arms aloft. Here came the signature celebration: the soaring leap from the ground, the twisting of the body, the clenching of the fists, the great roar of affirmation. The crowd cheered. This was the moment it wanted, the perfect shot for an Instagram story.
Like a substantial amount of this World Cup, though, all was not quite as it had appeared. Ronaldo had been indulging in an ultimately harmless — well, unless you happened to be Bruno Fernandes — and extremely convincing subterfuge. He might have fooled the crowd. He might have fooled some of his teammates.
But he could not hoodwink the cold, robotic eye of whatever space-race technology FIFA is employing for the noble and not at all wasteful purpose of determining the rightful goal scorer at soccer matches. Ronaldo’s head had certainly been near Fernandes’s cross. It had been within a whisker of it.
A kind reading might have it that perhaps he touched the ball with his aura. He may have just clipped it with his sense of self-esteem. He had not, though, as the replays showed and the watchful overlord in the sky spotted, made any contact with his corporeal form. The goal belonged to Fernandes.
That fact, quite clearly, did not fit neatly into Ronaldo’s version of reality, and if this tournament has taught us anything, it is that you can have any version of reality you want: If a wall that is there can also not be there, and fans can be real and also false, then why can you not score a goal with the finest of glances from your halo?
Even as the teams were leaving the field on Monday, Portugal’s win 2-0 win over Uruguay and its place in the round of 16 secured, Ronaldo was still protesting, gesturing emphatically to the part of his face — a cheekbone, perhaps, or an eye socket — he believed had grazed the ball on its way from Fernandes’s boot to the Uruguayan net.
If the precise geometry of the goal mattered to Ronaldo — and we can assume, at this stage, that this stuff definitely does matter to Ronaldo — then it did not carry any larger consequence.
Its real-world significance stretched only to breaking the deadlock in a tepid, soporific game, a monochrome sort of an evening that stood in stark contrast to the vivid radiance of the day’s previous offerings between Cameroon and Serbia and Ghana and South Korea, and setting Portugal on its way to a smooth victory against a toothless, bitterly underwhelming Uruguay.
Indeed, until the contested goal, the only moment of note at Lusail had come when a protester — carrying a rainbow flag, wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogans “Save Ukraine” and “Respect for Iranian women” and with the Ukrainian trident tattooed on his arm — had broken onto the field, the first instance at this tournament of all the issues that have swirled around it intruding on the sport itself.
Everyone did whatever they could to make sure that none of the messages seeped into the public’s consciousness. After all, the FIFA World Cup, opened at a grand ceremony in which the emir of Qatar sat next to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and which has the power, according to the organization’s president, to bring peace between South and North Korea, is a resolutely nonpolitical event.
A steward tackled the protester. The referee quickly bundled away the rainbow flag. The television cameras quickly cut to something, anything else — though not quite quickly enough to avoid picking up the colors of the flag — hoping that nobody had noticed real life inserting itself into Qatar’s carefully curated fantasy. That first goal followed a couple of minutes later. FIFA may well have celebrated as wildly as Ronaldo.
Uruguay threatened only fleetingly to haul Portugal back. There was a chance for Maxi Gómez, who rattled the post, and another for Luis Suárez, who creaked his rusting body into position to send a snapshot into the side-netting, but the flame of resistance quickly sputtered out. By the time Fernandes added a second goal, coolly converting a penalty awarded for a draconian handball call against José María Gímenez, Uruguay had all but lost hope.
There is a sadness in that. This Uruguayan team has been a reassuringly unchanging presence in the last three World Cups: Diego Godín marshaling the defense, Suárez and Edinson Cavani leading the line, a snapping, snarling opponent for all who crossed its path. It has made a semifinal, a quarterfinal and the last 16 in the process, no mean feat for a nation of three million people.
Success at a fourth tournament, though, has clearly been a step too far. The country’s old guard had fallen into disrepair and its new generation, led by the excellent Federico Valverde and the unorthodox, uncategorizable Darwin Nuñez, is not yet ready. It has the air of a team caught between eras, not quite ready to say goodbye to the past but not able to wholeheartedly embrace the future.
The same charge could be leveled at Portugal, of course: After all, it started this game with Pepe, 39, at the heart of its defense and Ronaldo, a couple of years younger and raging against the dying of the light, leading its line.
The difference, perhaps, is in the strength of the supporting cast. Ronaldo has at his disposal not just Fernandes, but Bernardo Silva, João Félix, João Cancelo and Raphael Guerreiro, depth that will make Portugal a considerable threat to anyone once the knockout rounds start.
Ronaldo remains the star attraction, of course, the one untouchable, but Portugal is no longer reliant on him, not in the way that it once was. Ronaldo might have thought he had decided this game. It is far more encouraging, from a Portuguese point of view, to know that he did not, as it turns out, touch the ball.