WORLD CUP

A single magical Ronaldo moment enough for Portugal

Combined wire services
 
 MOSCOW — At age 33, Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t so much run anymore as he threatens to run. Let the other players sprint and chase all game, he signals with his exquisite lack of industriousness. I will wait here, or maybe just over there, until it is time to do the scoring.
 
 Ronaldo mostly has jogged at this World Cup. More often, he has walked. It is not that he cannot run, or doesn’t want to; he is just in no hurry until he has to be. A good striker only needs to be in the right place once or twice a game to be world class, after all, and no one in the world spots those one or two places better than Ronaldo, who ran his World Cup scoring lead to four goals in the blink of an eye Wednesday afternoon.
 
 Ronaldo’s goal came early — a fourth-minute header after Morocco inexplicably lost track of him on a corner kick — but it was enough for a 1-0 victory that put Portugal on the verge of the knockout stage. It also made Morocco, now last in Group B, the first team eliminated from the World Cup.
 
 Portugal’s performance bore no resemblance to the master class that Ronaldo and his teammates turned in against Spain in their opener Friday, a thrilling 3-3 tie in which Ronaldo scored three times. Wednesday’s game had neither the same tension nor the same skill. “There was no intensity,” Portugal’s coach Fernando Santos admitted afterward.
 
 But the match did have Ronaldo. And for him, the goal, and the result, were more than enough.
 
 “The most important was to win the game,” he said. “We knew if we lost we could be out. But we managed to score a goal — I managed to score a goal. And it was very beautiful to me.”
 
 Defeat seemed harsh for Morocco, which was better than Portugal in the second half, creating a half-dozen excellent chances that might have produced a tying goal, and because only the day’s schedule sent them out of the World Cup before Saudi Arabia, which has not played nearly as well and was set to face Uruguay in the day’s second game.
 
 But Ronaldo’s score also was the worst possible start for the Moroccans, who dropped their opening game against Iran on a 95th-minute goal and promptly fell behind Portugal after only four minutes.
 
 Portugal had won a corner kick and Ronaldo casually jogged into the center of the penalty area to receive it. Everyone knew the cross would come to him, no one more than Morocco’s Manuel Da Costa, who accepted the challenge of staying between Ronaldo and the ball.
 
 Except that Da Costa did not. A shift of the hips and a half-dozen quick strides by Ronaldo — speed he now reserves for only the most appetizing moments — and he was free. The ball arrived on his forehead and just like that was redirected into the net. Portugal led. Ronaldo preened. And four minutes into their second game of the World Cup, Morocco wondered if it might be on its way out.
 
 Ronaldo mostly stalked the rest of the match — a threatening presence more than a particularly active one — while Morocco banged away without success at the other end.
 
 “We should have been much more effective,” Morocco coach Hervé Renard said. “Just like in our opening game, we had lots of scoring opportunities. But those who know how to be in the penalty area and are the most gifted players know how to make a difference.”
 
 Portugal will have to be better than it was if it is to challenge in the later rounds here, Santos said: more disciplined, more creative, more willing to impose itself on teams rather than wait to counterattack. “We played well,” said, “but I think we need more than that.”
 
 But Santos rejected the assumption, posed by more than one reporter, that his team had been poor and that Ronaldo had looked ineffective or, worse, old.
 
 “Cristiano is like a port wine,” Santos said. “He knows how to refine his capacity and age at his best.”
 
 The secret, he said, is what was plain to see: Ronaldo is not the same player he was in his 20s. He is more efficient now — deadly so, at least through two matches — and aware of what he can do.
 
 “He’s always evolving,” Santos said. “Because he knows himself and he knows what he can do. He doesn’t want to do the things he did two or three years ago, and he will not be doing the same things two or three years from now.”
 
SAUDI ARABIA
 
ELIMINATED, NOT
 
EMBARRASSED
 
 ROSTOV, Russia — Saudi Arabia avoided another embarrassing shellacking but lost to Uruguay, 1-0, Wednesday in Rostov, Russia. The result eliminated both Saudi Arabia and Egypt from the World Cup.
 
 The Saudis had been whipped, 5-0, by host Russia in their opener but started more brightly here.
 
 But in the 23rd minute, a Uruguay corner from Carlos Sanchez sailed into the area, Saudi keeper Mohammed Al Owais missed it and it came right to Luis Suarez. He was not as well marked as he should have been, and he tapped it into the corner of the net fairly easily.
 
 The goal took some of the fizz out of the game. The Saudis lacked the talent to create many chances and Uruguay lacked the urgency. The result was some unappealing soccer.
 
 Saudi Arabia will now turn to its final game against Egypt, another pointless team, to salvage something from this Cup.
 
 Uruguay and Russia each have 6 points and will meet to determine the group winner Monday. With just a pair of 1-0 wins over weakish opposition, Uruguay, the group favorite, may face a challenging opponent in the host nation, which has eight goals already.
 
SPAIN LIMPS
 
PAST IRAN
 
 By any statistical measure, Spain dominated Iran in Kazan, Russia, on Wednesday night. Spain controlled 78 percent of possession. Spain took 18 shots to Iran’s seven, five on target to Iran’s zero. Spain took three times as many corner kicks as Iran.
 
 Yet when the referee blew his whistle to seal Spain’s 1-0 victory, the all-world Spanish players must have breathed an enormous sigh of relief. Iranian players collapsed onto the turf all around them, disconsolate at not earning at least a draw.
 
 The teams’ game plans were unsurprising to anybody who has watched Spain this decade, or saw Iran’s dreadful and undeserved victory over Morocco in their first game. Iran sat back, frequently putting all 11 men behind the ball, and Spain continually probed for a breakthrough.
 
 It would not come in the first half, which is a credit to Iran’s defense. There were frantic clearances on balls into burly Spanish forward Diego Costa, but mostly Iran’s defense was compact and organized, snuffing out attacks before they began. Manchester City midfielder David Silva had Spain’s best chances, as he was able to wriggle free and unleash a few shots. Spain had just one shot on frame in the first half.
 
 But the dam could not hold forever, and cruelly, Iran was the author of its own demise. In the 54th minute, Andres Iniesta slotted a ball through to Costa in the box, who tried to turn and get a shot off. Iranian center back Majid Hosseini got to the ball first, but his attempted clearance ricocheted off Costa’s knee and past a helpless Alireza Beiranvand.
 
 Iranian manager Carlos Queiroz, who led Real Madrid in the early 2000s, had a choice to make. Iran could open up and chase the game, hoping to find an equalizer against a Spanish defense it had barely troubled all game. Or Iran could sit back, avoid the goal-differential killer of a blowout, maybe fluke their way into a goal, and hope for fortune on the final day of group stage play.
 
 Queiroz made the brave choice, and the final half-hour of the game was an open, back-and-forth affair. Spain had plenty of opportunities for a second — at one point Costa and Gerard Pique repeatedly kicked a ball on the Iranian goal line, but were foiled by two Iranian defenders who all but fell on top of the ball — but were unable to convert.
 
 For a brief moment, as Kazan Arena erupted all around them, it seemed that Iran would score. An Iranian free kick was headed off Saeid Ezatolahi, who corralled the loose ball and dispatched it into the back of the net. But after a review by the video assistant referee, Ezatolahi was correctly ruled offside.
 
 Another near equalizer would have been one of the goals of the tournament. Skipping along parallel to the touchline, Vahid Amiri nutmegged Pique before floating a perfect cross toward the back post. Mehdi Taremi flew in and thumped the ball with his head, but it went over.
 
 After two matches, it is hard to know what to think of either team. Iran has a stout defense, but the attack that had looked moribund against Morocco was dangerous when they finally went forward against Spain. Meanwhile, Spain would have soundly beaten Portugal if it were not for Cristiano Ronaldo’s heroics, yet one of the tournament’s favorites struggled to break down Iran.
 
 Then again, that is how it has been for Spain since they won the European Championship in 2008. All but the strongest teams are afraid to commit attackers forward against them, and so Spanish matches are an exercise in waiting for them to unlock a defense.
 
 On Wednesday night it was not tiki-taka, brilliant interplay or a satisfying one-two that won it for Spain — though at times all of those were on display — but Diego Costa’s knee and a lucky bounce. Sometimes that is what you need.
 
IN HISTORIC MOMENT, IRANIAN WOMEN JOIN MEN CHEERING TEAM
 
 Female soccer fans in Iran were taken through a roller coaster of emotions on Wednesday — and all before their team stepped onto the field to play against Spain.
 
 For 38 years, women have been banned from watching men’s sporting events in Iran. But on Tuesday, local news agencies in Iran reported that women would be allowed to watch a live broadcast of Iran’s World Cup match against Spain, taking place in Russia the next day, at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. Then, just hours before the doors were set to open, authorities canceled the event.
 
 “Tonight’s match between Iran and Spain will not be broadcasted at Azadi Stadium today due to infrastructure difficulties,” Iran’s Tasnim news agency wrote less than three hours before kickoff. “Since there will be no public broadcast, it is respectfully asked from our dear nationals to avoid going to Azadi Stadium.”
 
 Many fans turned up at the stadium anyway. On Twitter, photos and videos were posted of Iranians sitting, standing and playing vuvuzelas (the plastic horns made famous at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa) in protest. Decked out with Iranian flags, headscarves and other paraphernalia, both female and male soccer fans stared down a row of police blocking the entrance to the stadium.
 
 Finally, after about an hour, the police gave way. The stadium gates were opened and men, women and children who had bought tickets filed in, whipping out their phones and selfie sticks to capture a piece of history. Moments later, the official account of Iran’s national team tweeted a picture of a female fan in the stands of Azadi Stadium holding up an Iranian flag. “Azadi Stadium, now!” the tweet said in Farsi.
 
 Iran’s ban on women watching men’s sporting events has long sparked protests, but it became the subject of heated debate in the lead-up to the World Cup.
 
 Earlier this year, Iran publicly reinforced the ban, which was introduced by Iran’s ruling clerics after the 1979 Islamic revolution. In March, 35 women attempting to sneak into Azadi Stadium for a match between two Tehran clubs were detained by authorities. A day later, FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who was present at the match, told reporters that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had “promised that women in Iran will have access to football stadiums soon.”
 
 On Friday, Iranian female fans frustrated by the ban took to the stadiums in St. Petersburg in the first of such protests in the tournament’s history.
 
 With women finally having entered Azadi Stadium for the first time since the ban, they are hoping that the rules around watching sporting games in Iran will be changed permanently.
 
 “Once spectators have shown their respect for the rules, we hope it will be possible to screen the Iran-Portugal game in the same stadium [next Monday] and that will mark the start of families attending matches played at the Azadi,” Tayebeh Siavoshi, a female member of Iran’s parliament, told the Iranian Students News Agency.
 
 Yeganeh Rezaian, a 34-year-old Iranian journalist living in the United States, also was optimistic. Rezaian, who recently wrote about the lack of rights for female soccer fans in Iran, watched the 2014 World Cup in a dark coffee shop in Tehran, with the doors locked and the volume muted. (Rezaian’s husband is a Washington Post columnist.)
 
 “If we do it once . . . we can keep pushing for more. I really, really hope it happens,” Rezaian said, her voice choking up with emotion.
 
FOR FRANCE IN RUSSIA, ECHOES OF 1998
 
 KAZAN, Russia — The French forward Kylian Mbappé was not yet born when France beat Brazil, 3-0, to win the World Cup at home on July 12, 1998. But like any other French citizen, Mbappé, 19, has had no shortage of opportunities to relive the moment this month.
 
 There has been a deluge of material and events commemorating the 20th anniversary of France’s first and only victory in a tournament that was, lest anyone forget, the brainchild of two Frenchmen: Jules Rimet and Henri Delaunay.
 
 In the week before this World Cup in Russia began, French television networks broadcast three documentaries about the 1998 victory. One film, titled, “Le Sacre d’une Nation,” contained video of a 7-year-old Antoine Griezmann, who, with a friend, was dashing around the French national team’s training ground near Lyon during the summer of 1998 while wearing a No. 7 French jersey.
 
 Among the stars who signed an autograph for Griezmann was Thierry Henry, then just 20 himself.
 
 “Our successors,” Henry said as he looked at the youngsters.
 
 It was quite a scene, quite a comment, but it is up to Griezmann, now wearing France’s No. 7 in the World Cup, and the rest of his teammates to determine just how prescient it turns out to be.
 
 “When I see the quality of today’s French players, especially all these forwards, of course I say to myself, something wonderful is going to happen,” Aimé Jacquet, the long-retired manager of the 1998 team, said.
 
 So far, it has yet to happen in Russia. In its opening match in Kazan, France struggled to find continuity and opportunity against a well-organized Australian team.
 
 Griezmann, Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé failed to generate the collective spark in attack that they had in preliminary games. Defender Samuel Umtiti committed a major gaffe, handing the Australians a penalty kick after inadvertently touching the ball with an extended right fist.
 
 But Les Bleus, as they are called, did manage the essential: winning, 2-1, to share the early lead in Group C with Denmark. Now, as France prepares to face Peru in Yekaterinburg today, one wonders whether the current manager, Didier Deschamps, will reinsert veterans like Chelsea striker Olivier Giroud, 31, and Juventus midfielder Blaise Matuidi, 31, into his starting lineup, which included no field player over age 27 in Kazan.
 
 Deschamps is this squad’s most obvious link to 1998. He was the captain of that team: a tenacious and technically sound midfielder once dismissed as “a water carrier” by French forward Eric Cantona but who definitively got the last word by getting both hands on the World Cup.
 
 Cantona, so gifted and so volatile, was ultimately not selected for the 1998 team by Jacquet in the interest of unity. Nor was David Ginola, another big attacking talent with a habit of sucking much of the oxygen out of a room.
 
 The parallels to the present day are striking with Deschamps continuing to do without Karim Benzema, the star forward who has been an integral part of Real Madrid’s dynastic run of four Champions League titles in five years.
 
 In 2014, in Brazil, Benzema, both powerful and deft, was at the forefront for France as it reached the World Cup quarterfinals before losing to Germany. But Benzema was placed under formal investigation in France in 2015 over an alleged attempt to blackmail his French teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape.
 
 The case remains open as Benzema has continued to star for Real, and Deschamps has not recalled him to the national team despite the occasional hint.
 
BOOTED AFTER
 
RAISING PUTIN FOE
 
 Russia’s former national soccer coach, Leonid Slutsky, broke an unwritten rule of working on state television when he mentioned President Vladimir Putin’s main political foe, Alexey Navalny, by name live on air during a World Cup match commentary. Now he’s off the team of Channel One’s tournament pundits.
 
 Slutsky made the taboo remark in current champion Germany’s game against Mexico on Sunday, after match commentator Kirill Dementyev used an obscure homonym of the opposition leader’s name to say that the Germans should play “high-pressure soccer” to try to overcome a 1-0 losing score. Slutsky responded with a quip asking if Navalny plays soccer, adding: “That would be interesting to see.”
 
 Dementyev didn’t reply on air to the comment. On Tuesday, after the Russian team all but guaranteed qualification for the World Cup’s next round with a 3-1 defeat of Egypt, Slutsky announced that he’ll no longer be offering commentary for the country’s most-watched channel.
 
 He explained that he was leaving to pursue other activities. Channel One said later that Slutsky’s exit was due to his responsibilities with the Dutch team SBV Vitesse, where he’s due to take up the post of head coach, Interfax reported, citing a spokesman.
 
 Navalny, who was barred from running against Putin in presidential elections in March, tweeted on Wednesday that he was “ very sorry” to hear about Slutsky’s departure.
 
 Putin has consistently refused to mention Navalny by name in interviews and press conferences, sometimes referring to him instead as “that character.” After lavishing $11 billion on preparations to host the World Cup for the first time, the Kremlin’s determined to present a friendlier, more open image of Russia after years of international political tensions.
 
 State television remains tightly controlled, however, at a time when the soccer tournament offers a rare opportunity to persuade younger Russians to tune in. They’re more used to getting information from the internet and social media such as YouTube and Twitter, where Navalny has 2.2 million followers.
 
BLATTER MAKES
 
AN APPEARANCE
 
 MOSCOW — Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, the disgraced former president of FIFA, soccer’s tainted governing body, arrived in Russia to attend two matches this week.
 
 In doing so, he has cast a shadow over a cheery tournament and rekindled dark memories of a corruption scandal that paralyzed the sport three years ago and resulted in numerous federal indictments.
 
 Found guilty by FIFA of financial misconduct, Blatter, 82, is banned from serving in the sport for another 3 1/2 years. Nothing, however, prevents him from buying a ticket or accepting an invitation to watch in a VIP area. In this case, the latter applied.
 
 Who would invite him? Russian President Vladimir Putin.
 
 Blatter had helped steer support for Russia’s World Cup bid, which, like Qatar’s victory in the race to host the 2022 tournament, was marred by bribe allegations. (Putin did not attend Wednesday.)
 
 Blatter’s name wasn’t on the official list of VIPs in attendance, issued by FIFA at kickoff. While Gianni Infantino, Blatter’s successor, watched from FIFA’s suite, Blatter was elsewhere on the luxury level. He also plans to attend the Brazil-Costa Rica affair Friday in St. Petersburg.
 
 Attempting to rehabilitate his career — and perhaps troll the current FIFA leadership — he has agreed to several interviews, signed autographs and posed for photographs. FIFA hasn’t commented on his presence.
 
 — The New York Times,
 
 Washington Post and
 
 Bloomberg contributed to this report.
 
 TIM GROOTHUIS/WITTERS SPORT VIA USA TODAY SPORTS
 
Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo (7) celebrates his goal as Morocco players react in Group D play Wednesday during the FIFA World Cup at Spartak Stadium in Moscow.


TIM GROOTHUIS/WITTERS SPORT VIA USA TODAY SPORTS
 
Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo drives a free kick against Morocco in Group D play Wednesday during the FIFA World Cup at Spartak Stadium in Moscow.