MADRID • Enraged by Spanish tax authorities and a perceived lack of support from Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo is threatening to leave the European champions.
But is it genuine or part of a greater ploy for an even bigger pay deal for the Portuguese superstar?
Ronaldo's departure from Real, reportedly a given according to a Portuguese newspaper, triggered an avalanche of speculation over the potential destination of the world's highest-paid athlete.
Italian daily Gazzetta dello Sport on Sunday threw Bayern Munich into the mix, although the German giants' president Uli Hoeness yesterday dismissed the transfer talk as as the "Hoax of the Day".
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Meanwhile, the Daily Mail reported that Manchester United are prepared to pay a staggering £183 million (S$323 million) plus goalkeeper David de Gea - in whom Real have a long-standing interest - in exchange for Ronaldo and United target Alvaro Morata.
But neither the Real star, on international duty with Portugal at the Confederations Cup in Russia, nor his club have confirmed reports that he is heading for the exit at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Ronaldo walked past reporters without speaking to them after Portugal's 2-2 draw with Mexico.
According to Portuguese newspaper A Bola, the four-time World Player of the Year will quit Spain in outrage at the country's tax authorities and because he is dismayed by Real's subsequent response.
Spanish prosecutors on Tuesday accused Ronaldo of evading €14.7 million (S$22.7 million) in tax, related to image rights through offshore companies between 2011 and 2014.
If put on trial and found guilty, the 32-year-old risks "a fine of at least €28 million" and could be jailed for 31/2 years, the Gestha union of experts at Spain's Inland Revenue said in a statement.
Real insisted they were "absolutely convinced" Ronaldo would prove his innocence and pledged him the club's "full confidence".
"We understand he has acted in accordance with the legality regarding the fulfilment of his fiscal obligations," Real said in a statement.
"Sometimes the best answer it's to be quiet," Ronaldo retorted last Thursday on Instagram, with a photo of himself in a Portugal polo shirt and right forefinger raised to his lips.
But Spanish sports daily Marca claimed on Sunday that Real coach Zinedine Zidane broke off his holiday to call Ronaldo to persuade his unsettled star not to leave the club.
The paper added that Real captain Sergio Ramos also pleaded with him to stay.
Ronaldo's unease has been apparent for some time, with the Portuguese repeatedly airing his grievances at being whistled by the club's notoriously demanding fans.
After ending Real's five-year wait for a LaLiga title last month, he complained of being "treated like a criminal", as Spanish media speculated on tax fraud charges.
"People say things about me without knowing a thing and it bothers me. (The media) say things about me without knowing the truth," he said.
"I am not a saint, but I am also not a devil like many people think I am."
Twice before, in 2012 and 2015, Ronaldo had complained of dissatisfaction - and on each occasion, he earned a new, bigger pay deal.
This time, the possible Man United escape route must be seen in the context of his well-publicised falling-out with Jose Mourinho when he managed Real.
With The Daily Mail reporting that Real are already eyeing young Monaco star Kylian Mbappe, any doubts over Ronaldo's future could accelerate the deal.