MOSCOW (AP) He’s their star player, but Portugal would rather talk about anyone except Cristiano Ronaldo.
On the day Ronaldo was summoned to appear before a Spanish judge on accusations of tax fraud, defender Pepe and coach Fernando Santos tried to pretend the story simply didn’t exist.
Pepe waxed lyrical about a coach he’d worked with briefly 14 years ago. Santos nattered about friendly phone calls with a player from his Porto days.
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When they did have to discuss their star player, they kept it general. Legal problems? Ronaldo barely gives them a thought, they suggested.
“Cristiano is one more player who is completely motivated to help Portugal as he has always done,” Pepe said.
“Tomorrow we have a very important game with Russia,” Santos said with a pained expression when asked about Ronaldo. “All the players are concentrated on the Russian game and Cristiano Ronaldo is extremely concentrated with the Russian game which we will play tomorrow.”
When the man himself emerged for training at Moscow’s Spartak stadium, he ignored waiting journalists before giving his teammates a quick nod and starting a ball-juggling exercise.
Last week, Ronaldo was accused by a state prosecutor of four counts of tax fraud totaling 14.7 million euros ($16.5 million). The Portugal forward is now under official investigation and will have to appear in the Pozuelo de Alarcon court No. 1 on July 31. A judge will then decide if there are grounds to charge him with a crime.
The prosecutor last week accused Ronaldo of having a shell company in the Virgin Islands to hide the money he had made from image rights.
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Ronaldo has denied any wrongdoing. The accusations against him have caused speculation in Spain that he may seek a move away from Real Madrid.
European champion Portugal goes into Wednesday’s game against Russia on the back of a frustrating 2-2 draw with Mexico – Santos suggested Tuesday he may shake up the squad – while the Russians are riding high in Group A after beating New Zealand 2-0 in their opener.
One man is happy to talk about Ronaldo – Russia forward Fyodor Smolov. Having a megastar in the team is a luxury, he said.
“We don’t have a guy who could compete with Messi or Cristiano for the Ballon D’Or, but I don’t think we need a guy like that,” Smolov said. “It’s hard to build a united team and play as a unit when you have someone like that in the team, because everything revolves around him.”
The Russians have a solid recent home record against Portugal, having won a World Cup qualifier in 2012 and a friendly in 2015.
For many Russian fans, though, Portugal brings back dark memories.
Back in 2004, the 19-year-old Ronaldo scored twice as Portugal demolished Russia 7-1 in Lisbon.
It was Russia’s worst-ever defeat – a record which still stands – and the feeling of national humiliation soon led to younger players being given a chance. That became the genesis of the team which took Russia to the semifinals of the 2008 European championship, its greatest post-Soviet success.