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Cristiano Ronaldo’s First Year in Saudi Arabia


It was one of those rare days when nothing comes off for Cristiano Ronaldo and he cannot conceal his rising frustration.An offside flag denied him a goal and a VAR intervention denied him a penalty before he sent a wild shot and two headers off target in the closing stages of a crucial game. At one stage, he wrestled an opponent to the ground and was perhaps lucky to avoid a red card. As the game slipped away, he kept grimacing, looking to the heavens in disgust, as if to ask what he had done to deserve this.It was another blow for Al Nassr’s Saudi Pro League title hopes and, walking off the pitch at the final whistle, Ronaldo heard mocking chants from the jubilant Al Hilal supporters. “Messi, Messi,” they shouted, trying to taunt him with the name of his great rival.Grinning, he twice grabbed his crotch in what looked like a pointed response to his hecklers before disappearing down the tunnel.The incident attracted widespread media coverage, not least in Saudi Arabia during the holy month of Ramadan. A Saudi lawyer, Nouf bin Ahmed, described Ronaldo’s gesture as “a crime of public dishonour and (…) one of the crimes that entails arrest and deportation if committed by a foreigner”, adding that she intended to file a complaint to the Saudi public prosecutor. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images)For this particular foreigner, there was no danger of deportation. Al Nassr responded by issuing a statement saying Ronaldo was in fact suffering from an injury because a tussle with Al Hilal midfielder Gustavo Cuellar had started with a blow in a very sensitive area.“This is confirmed information,” the club added — and that was the end of the matter.But that incident last April was part of a difficult period early in Ronaldo’s first year in Saudi Arabia. A week later, Al Nassr suffered a shock defeat to Al Wehda in the semi-final of the King Cup of Champions, leaving Ronaldo to vent his displeasure at his team’s coaching staff as he left the pitch.In a column for Arabic-language newspaper Al Madinah, Dr Saud Kateb, a former minister at the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asked whether the government-backed acquisition of Ronaldo might have been “a losing bet”. He suggested that “excessively focusing on attracting the most famous and the biggest” was a “double-edged sword” because there was a downside to the global exposure that Ronaldo and other superstars bring with them.“I think that it would be better to attract more useful players,” Kateb said, “whose excessive fame does not constitute an unnecessary burden for their clubs and the league as a whole.”A year on from Ronaldo’s extraordinary move, that is not a view shared by Saudi Arabia’s modern ruling class.Whatever “burden” Ronaldo might carry is far outweighed by the profile and glamour he brings not just to Al Nassr and the league, which has been transformed over the past 12 months, but to the kingdom: visiting historic sites, opening a “CR7 Signature Museum” at the futuristic Boulevard World, wearing traditional Saudi dress to commemorate national holidays and signing up to promote numerous events, usually in the company of Turki Al-Sheikh, chairman of Saudi Arabia’s general authority for entertainment and one of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s most trusted advisers.Today (Saturday, December 30) marks the anniversary of the moment Ronaldo put pen to paper for Al Nassr, signing a two-and-a-half-year deal worth up to £173million ($210m) a year. Al Nassr called it “history in the making”, a deal that “will not only inspire our club to achieve even greater success but inspire our league, our children, our nation and future generations, boys and girls to be the best version of themselves”.No pressure, Cristiano.GO DEEPERRejection, revenge and soft power: Inside Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia’s Al NassrPressure? By the start of February, Ronaldo would have been forgiven for feeling it.His Saudi Pro League debut had initially been delayed by a two-match suspension dating back to his final months at Manchester United. He scored twice for a Riyadh all-star team in an exhibition match against Paris Saint-Germain and Messi, but he drew a blank on his Saudi Pro League debut against Al Ettifaq (four shots, no goals) and again four days later as Al Nassr lost to Al Ittihad in the Saudi Super Cup semi-final four days later.Next up was a game away to Al Fateh. Again nothing was coming off for Ronaldo: a goal disallowed for offside, a wayward first-time shot, another one rattled against the crossbar, an over-ambitious 35-yard free kick that went straight into the wall, another 90 minutes without a goal.And then, in stoppage time, a gift: a penalty kick for Al Nassr following a crass challenge on his team-mate Jaloliddin Masharipov. Brazilian midfielder Anderson Talisca stood on the penalty spot, holding the ball, but he knew to hand it over when his more celebrated colleague stepped up behind him. Everyone knows to defer to Ronaldo.A buzz went around the Prince Abdullah bin Jalawi Stadium. Young boys were hoisted upwards by their fathers, eager for them to share in their moment in history. Ronaldo briefly closed his eyes and exhaled in the manner of an action-movie hero who knows he has one chance to save the world.He did it. He saved the world. Well, he saved a point against Al Fateh. The 17,631 crowd — by far Al Fateh’s biggest attendance since their title-winning campaign a decade earlier — rose to acclaim a goal by an opposition player. Some of them called for him to perform his famous “Siiiiiiuuuu” celebration, but Ronaldo was already racing back to the halfway line, hoping there was still time for a winner. (There wasn’t.) Ronaldo sprinting back to the centre circle after scoring his first goal for Al Nassr in February (Ali Aldaif/AFP via Getty Images)In many ways, that game against Al Fateh last February summed up Ronaldo’s Saudi experience to date: a lot of attempts, at least one goal, a crowd desperate to see him play the hits (the stepovers, the flicks, the powerful long-range shots, the towering headers and, of course, the celebration) and an athlete in the twilight of his career determined to give them what they want, but above all, determined to get what he wants: even more goals, even more wins, even more trophies, even more glory.Towards the end of his first year in Saudi Arabia, Ronaldo submitted to a lie detector test as part of a marketing campaign for a cryptocurrency venture he was promoting.A cryptocurrency venture? That is a whole other story, and not a pretty one, but the lie detector test was a nice gimmick. It suggested he was totally convinced of his greatness — quite right, too — but not when he said he believed Portugal would win the World Cup.Then came the question of whether, at the age of 38, Ronaldo thought he would still be “playing at the highest level” in his 40s. He dwelt on this one, closing his eyes, before delivering the answer: “Yes”.This time, the polygraph reflected little or no change in Ronaldo’s body response, suggesting he was telling the truth. Ronaldo smiled, looking relieved, as if reassured by the feedback.The obvious thing to say here is that the test — or the premise of the advert — was flawed because, quite clearly, a player in the Saudi Pro League cannot claim to be operating at the highest level of the sport.But the point of a polygraph is not to establish truth or falsehood. It is to try to identify the physiological changes — rises in blood pressure, pulse, respiration, skin conductivity — associated with deceit.And everything Ronaldo does, on and off the pitch, is consistent with the belief he is still at the very top of the game.With one game remaining, away to Al Taawoun on Saturday, Ronaldo has scored 53 goals in 2023, one more than Kylian Mbappe and Harry Kane and his highest total in a calendar year since 2017 when he was at Real Madrid. Ten of those goals have come in nine appearances for Portugal and 43 of them in 49 matches for Al Nassr, including 19 goals in 17 league games so far this season.The latest of them came away to Saudi champions Al Ittihad on Tuesday. Needing to win to keep the pressure on league leaders…



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