Pepe claims there is Fifa bias against Portugal’s star man Cristiano Ronaldo as he prepares for World Cup play-off against Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Sweden.
|World class performers: Cristiano Ronaldo will take on Zlatan Ibrahimovic when Portugal meet Sweden|
Cristiano Ronaldo’s duel with Zlatan Ibrahimovic to avoid becoming the best player to miss next summer’s World Cup has been overshadowed by claims by Portugal defender Pepe of Fifa bias against his country’s talisman..
Portugal versus Sweden — aka Ronaldo versus Zlatan — stands out as the most eye-catching of the two-legged European play-offs, which begin with the first-legs on Friday night, due to the prospect of one of world football’s aristocrats being forced to watch from home when the World Cup takes place in Brazil.
Real Madrid forward Ronaldo and Paris St-Germain striker Ibrahimovic are both expected to challenge Lionel Messi to become the recipient of this year’s Ballon d’Or — recognised as the prize for the globe’s most outstanding footballer of the year.
But with Fifa president Sepp Blatter ridiculing Ronaldo during a recent speaking engagement at the Oxford Union, Portugal centre-half Pepe claims Blatter’s comments have 'opened people’s eyes’ to alleged bias against the former Manchester United player.
“We know that with Ronaldo’s [goal scoring] figures, it was not normal that he had only won one Ballon d’Or, after having been to seven or eight galas,” Pepe said.
“But that just showed that lots of things happen in football. Now you [journalists] have to show what happens.
“It is unfair what is going on with Cristiano. I hope he can win the Ballon d’Or, but Blatter has opened up many peoples’ eyes.”
With Ronaldo repeatedly being overlooked in favour of Messi for the global individual honours, there is a sense of grievance in Portugal — and concern — that Blatter’s comments about the player could lead to the national team paying the price for the apparent friction between the two men.
When asked about Fifa, Blatter and Ronaldo, and how the issue may affect the outcome of the play-off against Portugal, Sweden coach Erik Hamren diplomatically sidestepped the hand grenade that had been tossed in his direction before insisting that Ibrahimovic was the most worthy candidate for the Ballon d’Or.
“I am only focused on my team, not issues involving Portugal, but for me, Zlatan is the number one,” Hamren said. “He is world class, he plays for Sweden and he is my captain, so of course he is my number one.
“I have actually just voted for my world player of the year, but you can wait until after the game before I say who it is.
“For Sweden, all of the lights are on Zlatan of course, but he is a world class player and I don’t think he minds too much. He is used to it, and the expectancy will be no problem for him.
“Of course, it is a battle between two world class players, but we need to be good as a team. Zlatan needs our support. If we play good as a team, he can be our match winner.”
Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo, who will face Sweden despite a foot problem, both go into the game having scored hat-tricks for Real and PSG respectively at the weekend.
But despite Ibrahimovic’s emergence over the past 12 months as the closest rival to Ronaldo and Messi at the summit of the game, Pepe insists there is no comparison between the Swede and Ronaldo.
“They are two great players, but nothing compares to what Cristiano does,” Pepe said. “He has unimaginable statistics and is the best in the world.
“I repeat, in this moment, there is no comparison.”
Sweden go into the game at Benfica’s Estadio da Luz having failed to record a victory against Portugal in their last seven attempts, a run dating back to 1984, and Hamren claims that Paulo Bento’s team are clear favourites to win the tie.
“Portugal are big favourites, for three reasons,” Hamren said. “Firstly, they have a better ranking than Sweden and secondly, they reached the semi-finals at Euro 2012 and came very close to reaching the final.
“They are also playing the first leg at home, so it is a big challenge for us, but even though Portugal are a world-class team, we went to Germany and came away with a draw, so I believe in my team.”