Portugal trying to stay focused amid Ronaldo soap opera

Having the best player in the world in your starting lineup comes at a price, as the Portuguese national team is discovering to its peril.
Will he stay or will he go? Cristiano Ronaldo is caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between Manchester United and Real Madrid. ((Dominic Favre/Associated Press))

Having the best player in the world in your starting lineup comes at a price, as the Portuguese national team is discovering to its peril.

Portugal, ranked No. 11 in the current FIFA world rankings, is considered one of the favourites at Euro 2008. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has assembled a star-studded squad that looks capable of winning the country's first major international soccer tournament at the senior level. Confidence is running high in the Portuguese camp, for a change.

Yet all anybody seems to be able to talk about is the future of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Transfer rumours have always surrounded the 23-year-old star, but speculation about his future has hit an all-time high the past few weeks with the news that Spanish club Real Madrid is willing to pay a world-record transfer fee to Manchester United for the services of the Portuguese winger.

Scolari and his players have been barraged with questions from reporters covering the team's Euro training camp in Switzerland, and all of them are asking the same thing: will Ronaldo make the move to Real Madrid next season, or will he stay at Manchester United?

Will he go to Spain?

"I want to play for Real Madrid, but only if it is true they are eager to pay me and Manchester United what they have been saying they will," Ronaldo said in an interivew published Thursday on the website of Brazilian media outlet Terra.

"However, it does not depend on me." Ronaldo, 23, gave the interview while training with the Portuguese national team in Switzerland.

He said he would not comment further on his future until the three-week tournament ends.

"It is important to send a message," Ronaldo said. "From now on I will not talk again about this until the end of the Euros. It is not worth asking me because I will not reply."

Ronaldo's teammates have answered questions about his future with patience, but it's clear that the media circus surrounding Ronaldo has become a bit of a distraction. Earlier this week, the Portuguese soccer federation announced a news conference on its official website with the message that questions that dealt "'exclusively with the national team" would be answered.

There is a growing fear amongst Portuguese fans that the pressure might be too much for Ronaldo to handle, and that Portugal can't possibly win Euro unless the Manchester United star is at his best.

But defender Paolo Ferreira believes Portugal could still win Euro even if Ronaldo is off his best game.

"He's now the best player in the world, in my opinion, so it's normal that everyone should look to him," Ferreira said.

"But he won't have a poor tournament."

Tug-of-war between Manchester, Madrid

Ronaldo signed a five-year contract extension with Manchester United last April, tying him to the club until the end of the 2011-12 season. In order for Ronaldo to join Real Madrid, United would first have to agree to sell him, but the Spanish club has gone on record as saying they would break the bank to buy the Portuguese winger.

Recent Spanish media reports suggested Real Madrid would consider tabling a $196-million Cdn offer to United for the services of the Portuguese star, who joined the English club from Sporting Lisbon in 2003.

Madrid holds the record for the biggest transfer fee in soccer history, paying Italian team Juventus $71.5 million for the services of Zinedine Zidane in 2001.

United has plenty of reasons for wanting to keep Ronaldo. He scored 42 goals in all competitions for United this season, helping the Red Devils claim its second consecutive Premier League title and win the Champions League final.

He's also the top candidate to win the FIFA world player of the year award that will be handed out by soccer's world governing body in December.

A strong showing at Euro 2008, capped off by a Portuguese victory, would only serve to drive up the price on Ronaldo.