The World Cup’s Group B culminated in a few moments of insanity on Monday night, producing the kind of unpredictable, unthinkable drama that this tournament specializes in.
The outcome – Spain and Portugal clinched their places in the round of 16 – might have been as expected, but the way they got there was anything but.
And, at the end of it all, Cristiano Ronaldo was left to reflect on the fact that he had come within one Iran kick of being eliminated from the competition, after perhaps costing himself his best opportunity to win the one major title missing from his resume.
Ronaldo did not have his best night in Saransk, but for most of the evening it didn’t seem like it would matter.
Indeed, when arguably the world’s best player stepped up to try to convert a 53rd-minute penalty kick that would have extended Portugal’s lead to 2-0, more people were thinking about how it could take his tournament goal tally to five than wondering how it might impact the qualifying scenario.
But Ronaldo missed it, with Iran goalkeeper Ali Beiranvand holding his nerve, biding his time, and ultimately guessing correctly, moving to his left to hold onto the Real Madrid star’s tame effort.
As the clock wound down, news filtered through that Spain was, astonishingly, losing to Morocco in Kaliningrad, meaning Portugal was not only safe in terms of a place in the round of 16 but was also looking utterly secure to clinch first place in the group.
Yet then everything started dissolving into mayhem. Referee Enrique Caceres took one trip to the video monitor to see if a Ronaldo elbow on Iranian defender Morteza Pouraliganji was forceful enough to warrant a red card. Caceres settled on a yellow, but Portugal seemed rattled.
In the 90th minute, Portugal's Cedric Soares handled the ball in the penalty area, sending Caceres to the screen again, before awarding a penalty kick to Iran. Just before Karim Ansarifard nervelessly converted, Iago Aspas was busy grabbing Spain a late equalizer of its own, pushing Portugal down into second spot in the Group B table.
And suddenly, even that was no longer secure. Seconds after play restarted, Iran surged forwards, the ball careened around and Mehdi Taremi, a young forward who plays in the Persian Gulf Pro League, found the ball and destiny at his feet.
The moment was there, Portugal’s tournament future and a moment Iranian soccer history was there for him to snatch, but it proved too much. Taremi fired wide, and Portugal survived.
But for how long? When Ronaldo finally got his first international trophy with his national team two years ago at the European Championships, it came courtesy of a seriously juicy route through the knockout rounds.
In that tournament, one side of the draw became stacked with most of the favorites, while the other half featured a bunch of enterprising upstarts – plus Portugal, which had floundered its way through the group with three ties.
This World Cup looks like it's evolving in the same way. There are still some group games to go, but it is a real possibility that France, Lionel Messi’s Argentina, five-time champion Brazil, defending champion Germany, resurgent England and now Portugal will all be in the same half of the bracket.
On the other side, Spain – thanks to the late thrills - is now the beneficiary of a potentially plum draw. The Spaniards will take on Russia, which has surpassed all expectations after coming into the event as the lowest-ranked team. It won’t be easy, with the match to be played in front of a loud and passionate home at the host nation’s favorite venue, Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium
Yet it is still better by far than taking on Uruguay, which is the immediate task now facing Portugal. Uruguay handed the Russians their first defeat, scoring three goals in the process, earlier on Monday.
Ronaldo has won everything worth winning at club level, first with Manchester United and then Real Madrid, plus a huge collection of individual honors. He won the European Championship with his country in 2016. At 33, this may be Ronaldo's last chance to win the World Cup.
It could also have been his best chance, but instead of going through as one of the favorites, Portugal now has a murderers’ row in its path.