The arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo has already caused an uproar among Saudi Arabia’s football-loving public

Look east from the hilltop vantage point of King Saud University Stadium and the skyline is dominated by the scratching posts of central Riyadh, all of which have outgrown the others over the years to claim the tallest in the city. Now there’s a new giant in town and he’s overshadowing them all.

You also no longer have to look outside the home of giants Al Nassr to find it. Cristiano Ronaldo is right there, with a global reputation, an ego and, significantly, a newly bloated bank balance large enough to dwarf any gleaming building.

Dominating the horizon, the neon-lit Kingdom Center is one of those that used to bill itself as the city’s tallest tower. This is Ronaldo’s kingdom now.

Since Cristiano Ronaldo's move to Al-Nassr, Saudi Arabia's obsession with football has boomed

Since Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Al-Nassr, Saudi Arabia’s obsession with football has boomed

The Portuguese icon signed for Al-Nassr after leaving Manchester United on a free transfer

The Portuguese icon signed for Al-Nassr after leaving Manchester United on a free transfer

It’s his name in lights, the “Hala Ronaldo” signage visible through the moving walkway, fireworks and sparklers that hailed his unveiling as an Al-Nassr player this month. He’s not here to achieve a footballing feat, but he won’t lack the admiration of a young, western-leaning, football-obsessed crowd either.

Yes, the move represents one last cash grab before box office ends his playing career, but don’t think he’s settling in the midst of an impoverished football culture. It’s not South America, of course. It’s Saudi Arabia. But football is the most popular and fastest-growing pastime here, a rise that Ronaldo’s presence is sure to accelerate.

While the country’s government sees sport as a vehicle to the West and acceptance in a world beyond its own borders of human rights abuses, it is a journey that a large part of the population is gratefully embarking on.

Locals were chanting Ronaldo’s name at the 25,000-seat King Saud long before his arrival ceremony. I was there last month, standing on the grass pitch in the midst of thousands as Portugal played Switzerland on the giant screen at the center of Riyadh’s World Cup fan zone, the largest beyond Qatar, we’re told.

Al-Nassr supporters celebrate at Ronaldo's unveiling ceremony at Msool Park following his arrival

Al-Nassr supporters celebrate at Ronaldo’s unveiling ceremony at Msool Park following his arrival

That same week, news broke in the Spanish press that Ronaldo had agreed to a deal with Al Nassr, and anticipation was palpable both inside the stadium and in the taxis, cafes and souks beyond. That passion moved much faster than their soon-to-be new idol, who was benched for the quarter-final game.

The irony of Portugal leading 5-1 without their once indestructible talisman was lost on the locals. Every time Ronaldo appeared on the screen with a sour expression, there was a cheer louder than any Portugal goal.

Then, when he was stripped and ready to come on in the 73rd minute, a throaty ‘Ronaldo, Ronaldo’ chorus was sent into the temperate Arabian night. It almost felt like a call to prayer. Those prayers were answered when the £173million-a-year deal to make the 37-year-old the world’s highest-paid sportsman was confirmed this month.

“It’s something amazing, wonderful,” said Moosa, an Al-Nassr fan in his 20s. “But don’t stop at Ronaldo, we need Messi, we need them all. For many years we have been watching these players, we play with them on the PlayStation.

“All of Saudi Arabia we love Ronaldo. This stadium will sell out every day, not every week. We will come here and sleep here!’

Ronaldo swore he had nothing left in Europe when he signed Saudi Arabia

Ronaldo swore he had nothing left in Europe when he signed Saudi Arabia

True to their word, they filled every seat and aisle to welcome Ronaldo. He has been repeatedly heralded as ‘the greatest footballer in the world’ by official officials, which felt cold and forced, but the warmth from the stands was real. When you spend time in Saudi Arabia you leave with this feeling, the contradiction of a distant and authoritarian regime confronted with a welcoming and curious audience.

However, an ongoing two-game ban – imposed by the FA for slapping a mobile phone out of the hand of an Everton fan – has so far prevented them from seeing Ronaldo, and his debut will be on Thursday in a friendly against PSG and Lionel Messi take place.

Hatim Alhasani, 31, Saudi Pro League filmmaker and media coordinator said: “This is an opportunity for him and us to see the league grow. The Saudis are crazy about football, so passionate. Ronaldo will feel that. He’ll make a lot of money too!’

When you ask who pays, the general answer is “who knows?”. As an isolated club, Al Nassr certainly cannot afford Ronaldo. But a wealthy board of sponsors, we’re told, can. Such conversations veer onto the subject of sports lingerie, whether it’s the signing of Ronaldo, the Public Investment Fund’s takeover of Newcastle United, or the morally bankrupt LIV Golf company.

The superstar will rake in £175million a year - easily the most lucrative football deal in the world

The superstar will rake in £175million a year – easily the most lucrative football deal in the world

Alhasani is one of several young men who have been spoken to who believe the picture painted of Saudi Arabia in the West is inaccurate.

“The culture and life here is very different from what is portrayed elsewhere. We respect every culture and every nation,” he said. “I guarantee that anyone who comes here will change their mind.

“If we go to Europe, we respect the rules and the culture there. But all over the world – in Europe, Africa, Asia, America – there are human rights issues.

“We are not in paradise, we are not in heaven, it never will be. But I find the focus on Saudi unfair. Why wasn’t something said beforehand about the other (football club) owners from that part of the world? Why only Saudi? I think the criticism is political. If you’ve never seen Saudis and Saudi people, you don’t have the full picture.

The Portuguese star's contract with Man United was terminated by mutual consent in December

The Portuguese star’s contract with Man United was terminated by mutual consent in December

However, Amnesty International says Ronaldo’s signing is another ploy to distract from human rights abuses.

Dana Ahmed, Amnesty Middle East researcher, said: “Al Nassr’s signing of Cristiano Ronaldo fits into a broader pattern of sports laundry in Saudi Arabia. It is highly likely that the Saudi authorities will encourage Ronaldo’s presence in the country to distract from the country’s appalling human rights record.

“Rather than uncritically praising Saudi Arabia, Ronaldo should use his considerable public platform to draw attention to human rights issues.”

Of course not Ronaldo. He will take his money and use his profile to put football in the spotlight. With a new giant in town, everything else will remain in its shadow.

Lionel Messi is reportedly being courted by two Saudi clubs after his World Cup win

Lionel Messi is reportedly being courted by two Saudi clubs after his World Cup win

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-11638255/Cristiano-Ronaldos-arrival-sent-Saudi-Arabias-football-obsessed-public-frenzy.html?ns_mchannel=rss&ns_campaign=1490&ito=1490 The arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo has already caused an uproar among Saudi Arabia’s football-loving public

Maureen Mackey

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