Cristiano Ronaldo storms off the pitch kicking a water bottle; Ronaldo hugs a 10-year-old boy who lost his father in the Turkey-Syria earthquake; Ronaldo makes Erik Ten Hag suffer; Ronaldo poses for selfies with the locals. It was the comeback week for Ronaldo into mainstream football consciousness. Not that the world had ever forgotten him, or his news or the reels ever stopped, but in the seven-odd days, he has been hogging unwavering attention, which in a sense defines his footballing existence.
There were other snippets and nuggets too—snatches of him rattling out Arabic; of him belting out a pre-game pep-talk; his daughter rendering an Arabic song; his club’s website is still reeling in the sudden onslaught of web-traffic.
They are the perfect pair too—a nation that wants to build an image purchasing the most image-conscious living footballer.
In a little more than three months, the club that coughed up an astonishing 177 million pounds to acquire the signature of one of the game’s all-time greats though ageing and plateauing, has achieved its primary targets. A) It has forged an identity overnight. Until this year, Al Nassr hardly struck a chord outside Saudi Arabia, though it has local relevance, grooming some of the country’s finest talents like Majed Abdullah, Fahd Al-Herafy and Mohaisn Al-Jam’aan. B) It had already become a commercial blockbuster, shirts have flown off the shelves, sponsorship deals are flying in, and match-day tickets are frenziedly sold out. C) The country has left its first big imprint in world football.
Cristiano Ronaldo is angry with the performance of the team.pic.twitter.com/oLP2zyEFkM
— CristianoXtra (@CristianoXtra_) March 9, 2023
The last is perhaps the mopremist significant victory yet. Saudi Arabia wants to bid for a World Cup (2030 earliest), it wants to enhance its sporting image, it wants to project a sport-friendly-country image (and there could be an exodus of semi-retired legends to the country), and Ronaldo just burst in front of them, like a spring in the middle of a desert. The timing was ideal—a bust-up with his former club through an interview. Had the prelude been less stormy, in case he and the club were to part peacefully at the end of the season, all smiles and tears, the effect of the transfer would not have been this exaggerated. Like it were to several other legends before him, his last days would have played out far away from the glare of cameras (though Ronaldo would have twitched at the possibility of him not playing without the world watching him).
Ronaldo’s presence is giving the country more visibility in the sporting world than ever before. After prolonged legal resistance and battles, Saudi Arabia state-run Public Investment Fund (PIF) purchased English Premier League club Newcastle United, a storied club no less, but the purchase of Ronaldo turned out to be the real game-changer. It has turned out to be a better business deal too—Newcastle United cost an estimated 350 million pounds’ Ronaldo for almost half of it. Saudi until being Ronaldo-fied was most famous for its immense oil wealth, the best dates in the world and the holy shrines of Mecca and Madina. Add Ronaldo too into the list.
What’s better, in every public function or post-game interviews, he is extolling the virtues of the country. Amnesty Middle East want Ronaldo to “use his time at Al Nassr to speak out about the myriad human rights issues in the country and shouldn’t allow his fame and celebrity status to become a tool of Saudi sportswashing” but instead Ronaldo says he “wants to give a different vision of this club and country.”
🔴 شاهدوا .. غضب كبير جداً من النجم العالمي #كرستيانو_رونالدو بعد الخسارة من #الاتحاد للمرة الثانية#الاتحاد_النصر#النصر_الاتحاد pic.twitter.com/T80sXddLmS
— علاء سعيد (@alaa_saeed88) March 9, 2023
Recently, on the Saudi founding day, he was spotted in a gold-printed dagla robe with his teammates and participating in a traditional ardah dance that featured Arab swords. “Riyadh, how beautiful!” he once tweeted. All these could be his genuine feelings, but you cannot wonder how much of it would be PR-generated stuff too.
It’s how aspirational gulf states function too. Qatar for example. A year after it won the rights to host the 2022 World Cup, it invested in PSG. One of its first acquisitions was David Beckham, who was then with LA Galaxy. The priorities for signing him were not so much the need for a 36-year old midfielder, but coveting the Beckham brand. Read Ronaldo for Beckham now. In the decade that followed PSG’s takeover to hosting the World Cup last year, the club assembled some of the most sparking gems in football, some still dazzling, some shining sporadically. PSG might not have emerged as a powerhouse of Europe despite all the spending—they have expended around 1.6 billion pounds in the last decade—but the Qatar State has achieved most of its needs, in terms of nation-building through football. The larger victory has been achieved; Champions League defeats would not matter.
That could be the future of the Saudi league too. Many more would follow the Ronaldo trail, his great contemporary Lionel Messi too could join him, the overall quality of the league too could improve, but in the end, it could help Saudi build an image in the sporting world as PSG helped Qatar nurture. It’s a win-win for Saudi Arabia, Al Nassr Club and Ronaldo himself. They make the perfect pair too—a nation that wants to build an image purchasing the most image-conscious living footballer.