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Cristiano Ronaldo experiences a surreal start in Saudi Arabia

Riyadh Palm trees along deserted roads leading out of Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport were wet with raindrops when Cristiano Ronaldo arrived in the Saudi capital this week.

Surprising weather has welcomed the football great’s shocking move to the Middle East, where the gray skies in Riyadh more closely resembled the often overcast conditions of Manchester, his previous home.

It’s a surreal start for Ronaldo when he the next step in his legendary career in a league that few people know about.

The wet and cold weather was so harsh that his new team, Al Nasr, was forced to put aside Saudi League match against Al Tai on Thursday because rain affected the electrical system at Mrsul Park, the club’s home stadium.

The former Manchester United and Real Madrid striker said at a presentation on Tuesday that he was ready to play immediately. However, the Portuguese player is due to serve out a two-match ban imposed by the English Football Association in November for knocking a mobile phone out of a supporter’s hands after a game against Everton last April.

He may have left the Premier League, but the sanction applies to club football around the world. However, as the match against Al Tai approached, Al Nasr did not confirm if he intended to comply with the ban.

Where Ronaldo goes, drama seems to follow – and the saga of whether he wants to lasted until Friday, when Al-Nasr finally ruled him out of the squad for the rescheduled match.

The excitement generated by his arrival in Saudi Arabia is undeniable – even if the idea of ​​him leaving elite European football takes some time to get used to. Thousands of fans braved the conditions and lined up to see their superstar sign for the first time on Tuesday.

“It’s very, very exciting because Ronaldo is the best player in the world,” Al-Nasr fan Nawaf Alshmri told The Associated Press.

Earlier in the day, an upbeat supporter of reigning Saudi Arabian champions Al-Hilal spoke of his confidence that his club would respond by signing another icon, someone like Brazil’s Neymar.

The Ronaldo effect seems to be already showing and the realms of possibility are being expanded by his mere presence – not to mention that he has already passed his peak and has been ruled out by both Manchester United and Portugal so far this season because due to lack of form.

Its star appeal still resonates today – on the day of its presentation, the streets surrounding the 25,000-capacity Mrsul Park were clogged with traffic. Al Nasr prepared for his entrance by projecting his image onto the outside of the stadium using strobe lights, fireworks and smoke machines to heighten the atmosphere.

His face beamed from electronic billboards throughout the city.

The 37-year-old Portuguese striker who, after a disappointing performance at the World Cup in Qatar, eventually showed up in a white Range Rover with tinted windows and drove out into the flashing cameras.

It was a very choreographed production for a club that will have to quickly get used to the worldwide fame that comes with signing one of the greatest footballers of all time and the most followed person in the world on Instagram.

Al Nassr had to hire an outside public relations company to deal with the sudden excessive media interest, but has yet to release an English version of its website. Instead, his social media accounts have become a destination for Ronaldo fans desperate to learn about his movements in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Nasr seems to be learning as he goes.

The signing was intended to make itself known and raise the profile of the club and Saudi football in general. It is also the country’s latest daring sports venture, which is undergoing rapid cultural transformation and faced accusations of “sports laundry” improve its reputation around the world in light of its human rights work.

There have already been two heavyweight title fights involving Anthony Joshua. His Public Investment Fund supported the takeover of Premier League club Newcastle and the start of the controversial LIV Golf tour.

Saudi Arabia also hosts Formula 1 racing, the Italian and Spanish Super Cups and major tennis tournaments. There is a push to promote women’s football and there are rumors that the country is planning to bid to host the 2030 men’s World Cup.

But for now, nothing beats convincing Ronaldo to make the country his home after signing a 2.5-year deal reportedly worth up to $200 million a year.

His reservation, when he stated he “came to South Africa” ​​at a press conference on Tuesday, was an unfortunate one, but he spoke passionately about his decision to move.

“I want to give a different vision to this club and country,” said Ronaldo.

Amnesty International responded urging him to use his position to draw attention to human rights issues in Saudi Arabia.

Football is already a big deal in the country, with more than 215 million television viewers watching the Saudi Arabian league last season, according to official statistics. Over 1.25 million people have attended matches during this campaign and both numbers are expected to increase significantly as a result of Ronaldo’s presence.

“He is the best player ever and having Ronaldo in the Saudi Arabian league is something unique and wonderful for us,” said Al-Nasr President Mousalli Almuammar. “This is the result of our great efforts to bring him here to play in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We have worked hard for many years to get him involved in the development of Saudi football.”

Al-Nasr’s Instagram following has grown significantly to 10.4 million, up from 1.2 million when the deal was first announced.

In just a few rainy days in the desert, the club has already gotten a taste of life with Ronaldo.

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More AP Football: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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James Robson https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson

Copyright 2023 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed without permission.



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