FOX Sports Insider
Cristiano Ronaldo was out of sight at the World Cup on Wednesday afternoon, but certainly not out of his mind.
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The Portuguese superstar, just hours after it was announced that he had sensationally left his club Manchester United by mutual consent and had been suspended and fined by the Football Association for two matches with the club he would next land with, skipped his media duties as national team captain and was replaced by team-mate Bruno Fernandes at the official FIFA squad press conference ahead of Thursday’s clash with Ghana in Group H (11 a.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app).
When Ronaldo speaks, it’s a big story. When it doesn’t, it’s arguably even bigger.
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Since the six-time World Footballer of the Year fell out of favor at English Premier League club United, it’s been a whirlwind. The kind of whirlwind that only a guy who is one of the most famous people on the planet, with an Instagram record of 502 million followers, can generate.
After his relationship with club manager Erik ten Hag soured, Ronaldo embarked on an explosive critical interview with Piers Morgan days before the World Cup. Unsurprisingly, the surrounding rowdy largely overshadowed Portugal’s campaign build-up.
Despite their best efforts, Portugal head coach Fernando Santos, Fernandes and even Ronaldo himself were unable to emphasize the team’s efforts to challenge for the title as the one of the fringe favourites.
“(People) usually make a lot of noise about what happens and Cristiano being 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 public pre-match appearances. In 2014, American Clint Dempsey sat out his side’s availability ahead of a World Cup group game against Portugal and was replaced by fellow player Jermaine Jones.
Yet in Ronaldo’s case, it was inevitable that his no-show was directly linked to the furor surrounding his United exit and speculation over where he might end up next.
Even in his absence, the Ronaldo circus continued. Every one of the first 10 questions, perhaps inevitably, was about him, much to Santos’ visible chagrin.
Santos, somewhat unconvincingly, denied that the Ronaldo saga was a distraction.
“I don’t think so,” Santos said. “I think it’s something that hasn’t even been discussed. There hasn’t been any comment about it during our time together, on the pitch or whenever we’re resting. The conversation hasn’t not occurred at any time, not even from him.
“If the players talk in the halls when they are alone, I cannot say. They have time to do what they want. For me, the important thing is that the players are very focused and have a good spirit. ”
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The press event that Ronaldo skipped became quite the scene.
Fernandes looked uncomfortable, Santos oscillated between looking crazy and joking, and journalists from different continents got angry at the dysfunction of the translation service. When Fernandes chose to only answer questions in Portuguese, the whole thing had an element of grotesque comedy about it.
If you were wondering how it might affect Portugal on the pitch, who knows? It should be borne in mind that Ronaldo has been in the national team for almost two decades, so they are mostly used to it. In some ways, his status and all that comes with it can be an advantage, as it takes the spotlight and the pressure off everyone.
The side were disappointed in 2018, wasting a chance to top Group B by conceding at the last minute to level Iran and then losing in the round of 16 to Uruguay. In 2014, they failed to break out of the group, with the USA edging them to second place behind Germany.
While Lionel Messi and Argentina stumbled in their opener against Saudi Arabia, Ronaldo – always compared to his rival – will be particularly keen to start strong against Ghana, the lowest-ranked team and the youngest in the World Cup.
“We know what the World Cup means for Cristiano and his focus has always been there,” said Fernandes, who was Ronaldo’s United team-mate. “It was good for me while it lasted (with Ronaldo in Manchester). Now Cristiano has made a different decision for his career and his family and we have to respect that.
“As for Cristiano, I don’t think what he has done or decided will have an impact on the national team. We are 100% focused on Portugal.”
Everyone else’s attention? That, as always, is on Ronaldo.
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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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