WHILE Manchester United were tangling at the top of the Premier League, their fallen icon was getting a first look at the Saudi Pro League.
The spectacle of Cristiano Ronaldo in Arabia is more surreal than anyone expected.
Al-Nassr’s new man made a winning but rather frustrating start to life in Asia.
His new club claimed three points with a 1-0 win over Ettifaq, but from jogging out onto the wrong half of the pitch for the warm up, losing the ball with his first two touches after kick-off and not managing a shot on target – it was not the debut the nation had hoped or paid for.
In a game of low quality and few chances, he fitted right in.
Supporters – one of whom left with a new car as the prize in the half-time raffle – were chanting Ronaldo’s name and shouting ‘SIU’ long before kick-off.
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Each charge forward brought every fan inside the stadium to their feet while, despite not making his mark on the game with a goal or assist, the star was serenaded and applauded at the final whistle as he waved to supporters behind the goal who had made a racket throughout waving flags and flares.
There was a salute to his family watching in the stands above the dugout as Ronaldo disappeared down the tunnel – and then the show was over.
There remains huge excitement and amazement around the club at his arrival.
But for all the fanfare and funds poured into this spectacle, Ronaldo’s presence in Riyadh is almost non-existent.
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Aside from one snap inside home ground Mrsool Park, not one billboard bearing his image was spotted across a week in town.
Despite the downplaying, this was a defining week for sport in the Gulf state.
Their biggest sporting acquisition yet – at £170million-a-year – started his new gig and, in a happy coincidence for his paymasters, it was in a rearranged exhibition friendly against his greatest ever rival and Saudi’s star tourism ambassador, Lionel Messi, before yesterday’s proper debut.
But this week was never going to be the climax of this grand plan.
No question is too difficult or price too big to halt the Saudi Arabian sporting mission, which will include a bid for the 2030 World Cup.
Ahead of Thursday’s nine-goal exhibition, Amnesty UK’s Peter Frankental said the show was simply “aggressive sportswashing” to distract from their “appalling human rights record”.
Frankental pointed to the 81 executions carried out in a single day last year, the huge prison sentences being handed out to human rights defenders and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
In that context, both Ronaldo and Messi are merely the world’s best paid cleaners – handed wads of oil money to provide an alternate view of Saudi Arabia through sport and holiday ads.
The Saudi Arabian Football Federation see things very differently.
Ibrahim Al Kassim, the SAAF general secretary, said: “Do you think if it was sportswashing, we would have won against Argentina in Qatar? No, it is about the development of football and Saudi Arabia.”
It would appear that the impact of Ronaldo’s arrival on Saudi Arabia’s troublesome reputation globally is just a convenient side effect for the decision makers in Riyadh…
There is, at least, genuine passion for football here.
Al Kassim estimates that 80 per cent of the population participate in or follow the sport.
Tickets for Ronaldo’s debut at the 25,000 capacity arena were said to have sold out in three hours, though the official attendance was 22,862.
For all the problematic politics, the hosts will likely get what they paid for.
The biggest names, featuring as a star or a stooge, will always be watched by someone, somewhere – regardless of the stage.
Ronaldo’s role domestically is to “inspire” the next generation, drive up standards and show other top players that the Saudi Pro League could be a destination for them – Messi especially.
Whether that happens is a question yet to be given a defining answer – as is the case with many queries here.
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What is certain is that Saudi Arabia’s interest in sport is going nowhere.
The biggest names and events are increasingly flocking to this corner of the Middle East and, whether you like it or not, they will keep coming while the cash is there.