RIYADH – The palm trees lining the desert roads leading out of Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport were wet with rain drops when Cristiano Ronaldo arrived this week in Saudi Arabia’s capital city.
The surprising weather greeted the soccer great’s shocking move to the Middle East, where the gray skies in Riyadh were more akin to the often overcast conditions of Manchester — his previous home.
It’s a surreal start for Ronaldo as he takes the next step of his storied career in a league few know much about.
The wet and chilly weather has been so severe that his new team, Al Nassr, was forced to postpone its Saudi league match against Al Ta’ee on Thursday because rain had impacted the electric system at Mrsool Park, the club’s home stadium.
The former Manchester United and Real Madrid forward had said at his presentation on Tuesday that he was ready to play immediately. However, the Portuguese player is supposed to serve a two-match suspension imposed by the English Football Association in November for slapping a mobile phone out of a fan’s hand following a game against Everton last April.
He may have left the Premier League, but the sanction applies to club soccer around the world. However, as the match against Al Ta’ee approached, Al Nassr would not confirm if it intended to honor the ban.
Where Ronaldo goes, drama seems to follow — and the will-he-won’t-he saga extended to Friday, when Al Nassr finally left 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 soccer behind will take some getting used to. Thousands of fans braved the conditions and lined up for a first sight of their superstar signing on Tuesday.
“It’s very, very exciting because Ronaldo is the best player in the world,” Al Nassr fan Nawaf Alshmry told The Associated Press.
Earlier that day, an optimistic supporter of reigning Saudi champion Al Hilal had spoken of his belief that his club would respond by signing another icon, someone like Brazil international Neymar.
The Ronaldo-effect, it seems, is already taking hold, and the realms of what is possible feel broadened by his very presence — never mind that he is past his peak and has so far this season been dropped by both Manchester United and Portugal because of his lack of form.
His star appeal still resonates — on the day of his presentation traffic backed up along the streets surrounding the 25,000-capacity Mrsool Park. Al Nassr prepared for his entrance by projecting his image on the stadium’s exterior, with strobe lights, fireworks and smoke machines deployed to enhance the atmosphere.
His face beamed out from electronic billboards around the city.
The 37-year-old Portugal forward, who is coming off a disappointing performance at the World Cup in Qatar, eventually turned up in a white Range Rover with blacked out windows and stepped out to flashing cameras.
It was a very stage-managed production for a club that is going to have to quickly get used to the global fame that comes with signing one of the greatest soccer players of all time and the world’s most followed individual on social media platform Instagram.
Al Nassr has had to enlist an outside public relations company to handle the sudden overload of media interest, but has yet to produce an English language version of its website. Instead, its social media accounts have become a go-to destination for Ronaldo’s fanbase, desperate to learn about his movements in Saudi Arabia.
Al Nassr, it appears, is learning as it goes along.
The signing was designed to make a statement and grow the profile of the club and Saudi soccer in general. It is also the latest bold sporting venture from a country that is undergoing a rapid cultural transformation and has faced accusations of “sportswashing” to improve its reputation around the world in light of its human rights record.
It has already staged two heavyweight title fights involving Anthony Joshua. Its Public Investment Fund backed the takeover of Premier League club Newcastle and the launch of the contentious LIV Golf tour.
Saudi Arabia also hosts Formula One racing, the Italian and Spanish Super Cups and high profile tennis tournaments. There is a drive to promote women’s soccer and speculation that the country is planning a bid to host the 2030 men’s World Cup.
But nothing so far compares to convincing Ronaldo to make the country his home after signing a 2 1/2-year contract reportedly worth up to $200 million a year.
His slip of the tongue when declaring he had “come to South Africa” at a news conference on Tuesday was unfortunate, but he spoke passionately about his decision to make the move.
“I want to give a different vision of this club and country,” Ronaldo said.
Amnesty International responded by urging him to use his position to draw attention to human rights issues in Saudi Arabia.
Soccer is already a big deal in the country, with a television audience of more than 215 million watching the Saudi league last season, according to official statistics. More than 1.25 million attended matches during that campaign and the expectation will be that both of those numbers increase significantly as a result of Ronaldo's presence.
“He is the best player across history and also having Ronaldo in the Saudi league is something unique and great for us,” Al Nassr president Musalli Almuammar said. “This is the result of our great efforts to bring him here to play in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We have been working hard for many years to bring him to develop Saudi football.”
Al Nassr’s Instagram following is growing significantly — up to 10.4 million and rising from 1.2 million when the deal was first announced.
In a matter of only a few rainy days in the desert, the club has already had a taste of life with Ronaldo.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson