MANAUS, Brazil – Forget swatting aside the mosquitoes in the Amazon, where some heavy-duty bug spray and socks can supposedly keep the tourists out of trouble.
The tougher task is to go roughly three minutes in a group of Portuguese, Brazilian and American journalists without hearing the name of Cristiano Ronaldo who, for the next 30 hours, will be the biggest thing in this part of Brazil.
Ronaldo didn’t show for Portugal’s press conference on Saturday, one day before his team looks to stay alive in the World Cup against the United States at the Arena da Amazonia (Sunday, 6 pm ET; ESPN).
That’s not exactly big news – he faced the media before the team’s sobering opener against Germany last week, and players typically catch a break the next time FIFA’s formal pregame press conference rolls around – but it was impossible for reporters to dance around the biggest issues surrounding Portugal’s brightest star.
Is he healthy? Are the recent images of a knee cocooned in ice and bandages an indicator that his World Cup is over? How do the Portuguese players feel when seemingly every question is about Ronaldo?
Said Portuguese midfielder Raul Meireles, bluntly: “We’re used to it.”
There are other problems with Portugal – left back Fábio Coentrão and forward Hugo Almeida are both injured and won’t play, center back Pepe is suspended, and manager Paulo Bento revealed that center back Bruno Alves missed training sessions on both Friday and Saturday with a thigh injury – but all that dwarfs the idea that Ronaldo might not be Ronaldo when the game kicks off.
The Real Madrid star reportedly left training early on Wednesday and photographers snapped images of his left knee wrapped in ice, the latest potential setback that has onlookers wondering if the world’s best player is too banged up to play on the world’s biggest stage.
Bento, for his part, promptly asserted that Ronaldo is ready to play against the United States.
“Cristiano played the last game and he trains everyday with all of us,” Bento said. “So Cristiano is fit to play. That’s all I can say.”
A win over the US would thrust Portugal back into the thick of Group G, even with the Americans on points and well within striking distance of a shot in the knockout round. A draw would force a must-win situation heading into the finale against Ghana on June 22, but a loss on Sunday would eliminate them in stunning fashion.
“We talked on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, but from now on we’re not going to talk anymore,” Bento said. “We have to play. And we have to play with a simple situation: Either we win, or we start packing our suitcases.”
Ronaldo, meanwhile, logged a full 90 minutes in Portugal’s 4-0 loss to Germany in Salvador, finishing with seven shots, two on goal. But he was hardly the dangerous presence most expected to see in Brazil after his stellar performance for Real Madrid in La Liga and the UEFA Champions League, and he looked exasperated at times after Pepe’s red card put Portugal down to 10 men.
He hasn’t spoken with the media since, leaving Bento and Meireles to remind all those who could hear that there are, in fact, other players on the team that might decide the team’s fate more than Ronaldo when Portugal’s backs hit the wall on Sunday.
“Cristiano is the best player in the world,” Meireles said. “But we don’t expect that only Cristiano will solve the match. We always work together and we always work as a team to win the games.”
Added Bento: “If we think that we’ll solve our problems only with the best player in the world, that would be a mistake.”