FOX Sports Insider
Cristiano Ronaldo was out of sight at the World Cup on Wednesday afternoon, but definitely not out of mind.
Who are we kidding, when is Ronaldo ever ‘crazy’?
The Portuguese superstar, just hours after it was revealed he had sensationally left his club Manchester United by mutual consent and was banned and fined by the Football Association for two games with the next club, skipped his media duties as national team captain and became at replaced by his teammate Bruno Fernandes at the squad’s official FIFA press conference ahead of Thursday’s Group H clash with Ghana (11:00 a.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports App).
When Ronaldo speaks, it’s a big story. If he doesn’t, it’s probably an even bigger one.
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Since the six-time world footballer of the year fell out of favor with the English Premier League club United, things have been going well. The kind of whirlwind that only a guy who is one of the most famous people on earth can create, with an Instagram record of 502 million followers.
With his relationship with club manager Erik ten Hag deteriorating, Ronaldo launched an explosively critical interview with Piers Morgan days before the World Cup. Not surprisingly, the surrounding riots have severely overshadowed preparations for Portugal’s election campaign.
Try as they may, Portugal head coaches Fernando Santos, Fernandes and even Ronaldo himself have failed to bring the focus to the team’s efforts as one of the fringe favorites to fight for the title.
“(People) usually make a huge noise about things that are going on and since Cristiano is so famous, it happens,” Fernandes told reporters. “But the strongest group is the one that wins.”
It’s not entirely unprecedented for national team captains to miss their pre-game public appearances. In 2014, USA’s Clint Dempsey suspended his team’s availability ahead of a World Cup group game against Portugal and was replaced by colleague Jermaine Jones.
But in Ronaldo’s case, it was inevitable that his non-appearance was linked directly to the excitement surrounding his departure from United and speculation over where he might end up next.
Even in his absence, the Ronaldo circus continued. Each of the first 10 questions revolved around him, perhaps inevitably, much to Santos’ apparent annoyance.
Somewhat unconvincingly, Santos denied that the Ronaldo saga was a distraction.
“I don’t think so,” Santos said. “I think that’s something that hasn’t even been talked about. There hasn’t been any comment on it in our time together, on the pitch or when we’re resting. The conversation never came up, not even from him.”
“Whether the players talk in the rooms when they are alone, I can’t say. They have the time to do what they want. For me, the most important thing is that the players are very focused and have a great spirit. ”
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The press event that Ronaldo skipped turned into quite a scene.
Fernandes looked uncomfortable, Santos vacillated between angry and joking, and reporters from different continents fretted over the translation service’s malfunction. When Fernandes opted to answer questions in Portuguese only, there was an element of ridiculous comedy to the whole thing.
If you’re wondering how this might affect Portugal on the pitch, who knows? It is worth noting that Ronaldo has been in the national team for almost two decades, so most of the time they are used to it. In a way, his status and all that comes with it can be an advantage as he takes the limelight and pressure off everyone else.
The side endured disappointment in 2018 and missed a chance to top Group B, conceding a last-minute draw with Iran and then losing to Uruguay in the round of 16. In 2014 they didn’t make it out of the group, the USA pushed them to second place behind Germany.
After Lionel Messi and Argentina stumbled against Saudi Arabia in the opening game, Ronaldo – who is always compared to his rivals – will be particularly keen on a strong start against Ghana, the lowest-ranked and youngest team in the World Cup.
“We know what the World Cup means to Cristiano and his focus has always been there,” said Fernandes, who was Ronaldo’s team-mate at United. “It was good for me while it lasted (with Ronaldo in Manchester). Now Cristiano has made a different choice for his career and his family and we have to respect that.”
“As for Cristiano, I don’t think what he did or decided will have any impact on the national team. Our focus is 100 per cent on Portugal.”
Everyone else’s focus? It’s up to Ronaldo, as always.
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Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and Subscribe to the daily newsletter.
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