Cristiano Ronaldo will put speculation over his club future firmly to one side as he leads European champions Portugal into their Confederations Cup opener against Mexico in Kazan on Sunday.
The 32-year-old Real Madrid superstar’s build-up to the tournament in Russia has been overshadowed after he was this week accused by prosecutors in Spain of defrauding the authorities of 14.7 million euros ($16.5m) in tax through offshore companies.
Now the Madrid sports media is awash with headlines suggesting Ronaldo wants out of the Spanish champions, despite only signing a new contract through to 2021 in November.
But for the next two weeks the main thing on the mind of the reigning Ballon d’Or holder is winning more silverware in the eight-nation World Cup warm-up event.
“He takes this tournament very seriously and is focused,” said Ronaldo’s team-mate Andre Silva, the striker who has just joined AC Milan from Porto.
“It would be a beautiful thing to have on the CV. Of course it would be a dream to win it,” Ronaldo said in January, since when he has powered Madrid to glory both in La Liga and in the Champions League.
It has been a dream last 12 months on the field for the former Manchester United man, who was a European champion at club and international level in 2016. More glory here in Russia will end any doubt about him winning a fifth Ballon d’Or.
“We don’t have words to describe what he represents for our country. He is an idol, even for us players,” admitted veteran defender Bruno Alves, the 35-year-old who has just signed for Scottish club Rangers.
Portugal’s triumph at Euro 2016 secured them a place in Russia, where they will be making their Confederations Cup debut against CONCACAF Gold Cup winners Mexico in Group A before facing the hosts and New Zealand.
Ronaldo has scored 12 goals in six international outings since coming off injured in the Euro final, but Mexico — winners of the Confederations Cup in 1999 — are confident they can stop him.
– Marquez still going strong –
“It goes without saying that he’s a great player. But we’re a great side too, and I’m sure we can stop him,” striker Raul Jimenez, a Portuguese league and cup double winner with Benfica, told FIFA.com.
It is not just Ronaldo they will need to stop though — winger Bernardo Silva, who missed Euro 2016 through injury, is fresh from winning the French title with Monaco and sealing a big-money move to Manchester City.
“A year ago, I said Portugal were going to Euro 2016 to win it. I said we were not the favourites, but that we were candidates to win it. I have the same confidence today,” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said earlier this week.
Mexico, who drew 1-1 at home to the United States in World Cup qualifying last weekend, will look to Real Sociedad’s Carlos Vela and Bayer Leverkusen striker Javier Hernandez for inspiration.
They will be led by former Barcelona defender Rafael Marquez, still going strong at 38 — while Ronaldo will win his 140th cap in the game, Marquez will be making his 139th international appearance.
The match in Kazan will start at 1500 GMT and will be followed at 1800 GMT by the Group B opener between African champions Cameroon and Chile in Moscow.
The Indomitable Lions, who reached the final in 2003, surprised everyone by winning the Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon at the turn of the year, while Chile won back-to-back Copa America crowns in the last two years and are spearheaded by Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal. – Agence France-Presse