So for another day it continued, Ronaldo effectively hiding in plain sight while the rest of the soccer world gossips, speculates and, simply put, freaks out about him.
To catch up: Just last week, a prosecutor in Spain accused Ronaldo of defrauding the Spanish government of more than $16 million in taxes. A day later, he declared to a Portuguese report that “my conscience is clear.”
But by Friday, the story went, Ronaldo was so upset by the accusation that he had decided he could no longer remain with his Spanish club, Real Madrid. The choice, to quote a Portuguese newspaper quoting unnamed associates of the player, was “irreversible.”
The rumor mill quickly began churning out breathless reports, with each new one linking Ronaldo to any number of big clubs. Then, on Wednesday morning, hours before Ronaldo was to lead Portugal against Russia, a new story emerged — maybe. To quote a Spanish paper quoting more unnamed associates — or perhaps the very same ones — Ronaldo had been “comforted” to learn that Florentino Pérez, the Real Madrid president, had spoken publicly in his support. Ronaldo, the report said, was now willing to stay.
On and on the charade may go. Will he go? Will he stay? Was the whole thing concocted to deflect attention from the tax fraud accusations? Ronaldo will not say.
This particular sort of theater has a natural home in Europe, where the hugeness of soccer, the rabidity of the sports media and the relatively small responsibility that professional athletes here — compared to their counterparts in the United States — traditionally feel to speak to journalists can combine to create an environment of overheated intrigue.
When Fernando Santos, the coach of Portugal, entered the interview room after Ronaldo’s short address, a journalist asked earnestly whether the coach thought the player had some sort of duty to comment on the stories whirling around him, many of which seemed to be coming from his own camp.
“He’s here to talk about the game, not about his family, about Real Madrid,” Santos said. “I understand you’re all curious. You have to understand — and I’m saying this with a good feeling — we have to respect the personal life of a player. It doesn’t bring anything positive.”
So Ronaldo went about his job on a cool, hazy afternoon in Moscow. The home fans whistled when he appeared on the video screen before the match and whistled again, even louder, when he first took possession of the ball just over two minutes into the match.
Eventually, Ronaldo made clear once again why people fuss over him. All those games, all that mileage on his legs, and he continues to supply a stream of big goals and indelible moments. He has counteracted the aging process by becoming more surgical in his play, more judicious with his running, more attuned to opportunities in the air.
Playing alongside the hard-working Andre Silva, Ronaldo was allowed to hover menacingly on the periphery of the action. In the eighth minute, he lurked along the edge of the penalty area as play bubbled far off on the left wing. When the ball was finally served into the goal mouth, Ronaldo drifted to the far post and placed his head to it, barely leaving his feet, depositing it into the goal just beneath the crossbar.
He jogged, scowling, to the right corner and celebrated with his teammates in the suddenly quiet stadium.
“We missed Ronaldo,” said Stanislav Cherchesov, the coach of Russia, referring to the defense on the goal. “But that’s just not us, judging by how many golden balls he’s won.”
These have been a fascinating — and productive — last few weeks for Ronaldo. In the Champions League final on June 3, he scored twice against Juventus to help Real Madrid defend its title, its third in four seasons. Ten days later, a state prosecutor accused him of defrauding the Spanish tax office of 14.7 million euros, about $16.5 million, in unpaid taxes from 2011 to 2014. He has been summoned to testify in court on July 31 in Madrid, two days after Real Madrid plays its archrival Barcelona in a summer friendly in Florida.
It may take until then to hear him personally comment on the case, or his future.
Late Wednesday night, after the goal and the celebrations and the curt performance in the news conference room, Ronaldo had to walk through one more room full of reporters to reach the team bus. With gold headphones slung around his neck and a team press official at his side, he marched toward the door as a few intrepid journalists gamely, but hopelessly, lobbed questions at him.
He stopped only once, to sign an autograph for a smiling reporter. The request technically represented a breach of protocol — journalists are forbidden to ask athletes for autographs — but at least someone got something out of him.
Outside, a Russian-accented chant of “Ro-nal-do!” emerged from a throng of waiting fans. The players wordlessly boarded the bus, which then peeled off into blue Moscow night.
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