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Cristiano Ronaldo’s life in Saudi Arabia: private shopping, luxury hotels, mockery of Messi

Cristiano Ronaldo’s life in Saudi Arabia: private shopping, luxury hotels, mockery of Messi

Anyone guess Cristiano Ronaldo Saudi Arabia will have it their own way, perhaps reconsidering after what happened in Thursday’s Super Bowl semifinal.

The fans jeered at Ronaldo, chanting “Messi! Messi! Messi!” when Al Nasr lost 3-1 to Al Ittihad at the King Fahd International Stadium. It was his second full game for the team — and his second shutout.

But in Al-Nasra it will be seen as just a bump in the road; Ronaldo’s new club is heralding his arrival as transformational. They see it as a signing that goes beyond the country’s footballing borders and puts them on the map of the global game.

The financial investment is certainly significant. Ronaldo’s salary of around £175 million ($217.4 million) a year makes him the highest-paid player on the planet. According to sources close to Al Nasr, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their position, the club will pay a tenth of that salary, with the Saudi state covering the rest.

“This is an opportunity to talk to one of the best players in the history of football. This is a historic moment for our club, for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and for the entire region,” said a separate source at the club, who wished to remain anonymous for the same reasons. The Saudi Arabian Football Federation declined to comment on the matter.

Since his signing was officially announced on December 30, no one at Al Nasr has had any complaints about the 37-year-old Ronaldo, who appears to be fitting in well at the club and trying to impress everyone at his new club. They point to his professional attitude and positive influence in the locker room.

But what can Ronaldo expect from his new football home? And will other big name players soon follow?

Athletic spoke to several figures in the Saudi game to find out.

Training and life off the field

Ex Espanyol coach Vicente Moreno has been in charge of top division Saudi side Al-Shabaab since joining the team in July. With his team third in the table, the Spaniard reflects on his memories of arriving in a new footballing environment. What struck him first may not surprise you. It was the heat.

“I’m interested to see how Ronaldo adapts,” says Moreno. “He will have to train in the afternoon. It’s 50 degrees in August, so it’s impossible to train in the morning.

“It might not sound like a big change, but if you’ve had a certain training routine your whole life, it can be hard to adjust.”

Due to the high temperatures, Saudi clubs usually do not hold more than one training session per day. And that means coaching teams have less control over their players as a result, according to Sergio Piernas, who was assistant coach of the Saudi Arabia Under-23 team in 2021.

“Training is done in the afternoon, around 3pm or even later in the warmer months – around 6pm or 7pm,” Piernas says.

“It affects the dynamics of training, and there are also fewer options for additional training.

“Clubs have improved their infrastructure and important decisions have been made with competitions that are better organized. But the players lack that culture of effort, development, understanding that it is not only training and everything, that there is active rest, quiet work, additional training, diet.

“And there are communication barriers – the players don’t speak English, so a translator is essential, although that has improved.”

Ronaldo’s signing aims to put Saudi football on the map (Photo: Fayez Nureldine/AFP) (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)

As for objects, Real Madrid used the Al-Nasra training ground during the Spanish Super Cup held in Saudi Arabia and they have a high standard. Ronaldo attended some of Madrid’s sessions and took the opportunity to catch up with former teammates.

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Rejection, revenge and soft power: Inside Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr

Off the field, Moreno says Ronaldo will likely live in one of Riyadh’s gated communities, where many foreigners live.

“There are some areas, like mini-towns, that are closed off with barriers and security,” Moreno explains. “There are many foreigners living there who lead a more western lifestyle.

“Riyadh is very big. Here, the concept of the city differs from the way we see it in Europe, in terms of streets, distances, space. It’s a city that’s about three times the size of Madrid.”

Before matches, Al-Nasr players meet at a five-star hotel in the city’s diplomatic quarter. Ronaldo has been staying in a luxury hotel for the first few weeks since his arrival, but the club plans to give him a big new home. On a recent trip, the Riyadh Mall was closed so he could visit it exclusively.

Piernas adds: “Given the influence he’s had on Cristiano, he’s going to have to live in a bubble.”

What about matches? “The level is better than we think”

Al-Nassr will most likely use Ronaldo as a lone central striker. His new side are top of the league with 33 points after 14 games, one point ahead of rivals Al Hilal with a game in hand. Their goal for the season is to win the title.

How Athletic reported earlier this month by one sports intelligence agency Al-Nassr are of a comparable level to Luton Town and Sunderland. in the Championship, while the Saudi Professional League was ranked as the 58th best in the world – with an average standard between The first league and The second league in England.

But Moreno says, “The level is better than we often think. Cristiano talked about it in his presentation that in World Cup you could see it; Saudi Arabia were the only team to beat the eventual winners Argentina.

“They didn’t get out of the group stage but I think they competed really well in all the games and showed what they can do. The level is good.”

The two biggest clubs in Saudi Arabia are Al-Nasr and Al-Hilal, who are similar to Real Madrid and Barcelona– says Piernas. Between them, the two sides made up 18 of Saudi Arabia’s 26 World Cup squads.

He adds: “Both clubs are based in Riyadh and Al Hilal have a slightly higher profile because they have contributed more to the national team and won the last Asian Champions League, so they are also going to the Club World Cup. Al-Nass is their main competitor.”

Al-Nasra’s home ground has a capacity of around 25,000 and attendances have hardly been full in recent times. Tickets usually cost between £15-40. Far fewer fans attend matches than in Europe – indeed, they were banned from doing so until 2018.

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Rejection, revenge and soft power: Inside Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr

Will Al Nasr sign more big players? “They have money, but they are not stupid”

There have been many players linked with Ronaldo’s new team in recent weeks. The forward of “Real” is included in this long list. Eden Hazardwho received an Al-Nasra shirt from the team’s coach, Rudi Garcia, during his visit to Riyadh for the Spanish Super Cup.

This gesture was interpreted as a way to get closer to the 32-year-old, but in reality there is another explanation. Garcia knew Hazard from his early days at Lille, where they worked together for four years. There are no plans to sign him and Hazard is not looking for a move either.

Some fans were quick to conclude that Al-Nass will look to build a “super team” around Ronaldo. According to sources at the club, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their position, that is unlikely.

One such source put it this way: “Cristiano was exceptional, but now they’re not going to make the Harlem Globetrotters. His mission is to develop the club. They have money, but they are not stupid.’

Piernas believes that the country’s leaders “supported the signing of Ronaldo” as part of their “very close connection” with football, which they want to develop in order to “have more exposure in the world”. He says such support is seen as “normal” in Saudi Arabia.

Ronaldo’s Al Nasr debut comes against a familiar old foe (Photo by Aurelien Meunier – PSG/PSG via Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia’s critics would say the signing of Ronaldo is just another example of the kingdom’s crackdown on sport – using major sports stars and events to shift attention away from their poor human rights record.

Amnesty International issued a statement through its Middle East researcher when Ronaldo’s move to Al Nasr was announced earlier this month. He pointed out that Saudi Arabia executed 81 people in one day last year and drew attention to the state’s crackdown on free speech, while urging Ronaldo to highlight the country’s human rights problems.

The signing of Ronaldo has already attracted a lot of attention.

His league debut came in a 1–0 home win over Etihad on 22 January, but he made his first appearance for his new club on 19 January in a friendly against Paris Saint-Germain, in which he faced Lionel Messi.

Interest in this match was great. Al Nassr has also seen a significant increase in its social media following, with 12 million followers on Instagram, 4.5 million on Twitter and 600,000 on TikTok, according to figures provided by the club.

And – at least in official matches – he hasn’t even scored yet.

(Top photo: Mohamed Saad/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

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