DOHA, Qatar (AP) – Cristiano Ronaldo was the usual hot topic at Portugal’s pregame news conference at the World Cup on Monday – though the issues were hardly positive for his veteran coach to handle.
Rumors of the star player sealing a transfer to a Saudi Arabian club. Fallout from Ronaldo’s bad body language on being substituted last week. A poll at home suggesting most fans don’t want him in the team ahead of playing Switzerland in the round of 16 on Tuesday.
Two of those subjects were swatted away by Fernando Santos, who has coached Portugal and coaxed his star player for more than eight years now.
“I don’t really know about this, to be honest,” Santos said about a Spanish media report that Ronaldo will sign a much-speculated deal with Saudi club Al Nassr after being cut loose by Manchester United. “That’s his decision, that’s what he has to deal with.”
On the subject of Portuguese daily O Bola’s poll: “I’m not paying attention to polls or any other type of this news.”
However, the question of Ronaldo’s body language on being substituted midway through the second half of a 2-1 loss to South Korea on Friday moved Santos to assert his authority.
“I didn’t like it, not at all. I really didn’t like it,” Santos said through an interpreter about images he hadn’t seen during the match. “We fixed that in-house and that’s it.”
When asked if he still trusted his captain, Santos again showed who was boss in the Portugal camp.
“I only decide who’s going to be the captain when I reach the stadium. I don’t know what the lineup is,” the coach said, insisting that was consistent with how he always communicated with his team.
Santos gave his explanations sitting beside defender Ruben Dias, who had earlier appealed to the Portuguese media to help “create unity” in the camp instead of division.
At a World Cup where Kylian Mbappe is the top scorer and Lionel Messi has been thrilling fans with his goals and dribbles, the narrative around one of the other superstars in Qatar has been less smooth.
OK, he’s broken a tournament record by becoming the first player to score a goal at five World Cups, but since converting that penalty in Portugal’s opening game, Ronaldo has had a rather quiet time on the field.
Maybe he’s about to burst into life in the knockout stage – and erase a blemish in his glittering career: None of Ronaldo’s eight World Cup goals have come in the knockout stage.
The five-time world player of the year heads into the round of 16 in likely his final World Cup facing a Swiss team which hasn’t advanced beyond this stage since 1954.
Don’t be fooled, though: This is the same Switzerland that eliminated France in the last 16 at the European Championship last year and has become one of the continent’s most consistent teams.
“We have seen how euphoric Swiss people are about being at this stage,” coach Murat Yakin said Monday, adding about Portugal that “we’ve proven that we’re able to beat them.”
In June, the regular rivals traded home wins – 4-0 in Lisbon, 1-0 in Geneva – in a UEFA Nations League group. On Tuesday, they will meet for the sixth time in six years. Portugal has won three, Switzerland two.
Portugal might now need Ronaldo to start delivering in order to advance to face Spain or Morocco in the quarterfinals.
And the player himself will surely want to put himself back in the spotlight, having seen Messi – his great rival – perform so well for Argentina in its win over Australia in the last 16 and Mbappe – the man who is fast establishing himself as the sport’s new superstar – already rack up five goals for France on its path to the quarterfinals.
Still oozing self-confidence at the age of 37, Ronaldo continues to back himself to perform at the highest level. But his last two performances in the group stage were underwhelming. His only goal so far has come from the penalty spot in Portugal’s opening victory over Ghana.
He’ll be playing for the fourth time in 13 days and that’s quite the workload these days for Ronaldo, whose game time has been managed for the past year and a half at United.
Portugal will welcome back its leading players who were rested against South Korea, like Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva and Dias.
Santos must decide whether to play Raphael Guerreiro at left back, and return Joao Cancelo to right back, or leave Cancelo in that position to accommodate Diogo Dalot at right back.
Switzerland’s danger man is Breel Embolo, who scored twice in the group stage and four times in his last five games for his country.
Embolo described Ronaldo on Monday as “an inspiration. You can only learn from him. As a person and as a player it’s an honor to be facing him.”