Could Ronaldo transform Saudi’s footballing landscape like Pele did in USA?

When Pele joined New York Cosmos, in 1975, he announced: “You can say now to the world that soccer has finally arrived in the United States.” Cristiano Ronaldo is not as gifted with words as Pele was but he would sound equally dramatic if he were to say “football has finally arrived in Saudi Arabia”, when he turns up for Riyadh’s Al Nassr club, which would roll out 173 million pounds for his services.

In Ronaldo the city has found its perfect match. And Ronaldo has found the perfect match in the city too. Of all the cities that Cristiano Ronaldo has played in, cities more historic and grand in the football-scape, Riyadh perhaps captures the spirit of Ronaldo more than any other locales. A city that sprung from sand, like the footballer that scaled the loftiest peaks in the game with his immaculate hard work and unflappable determination, a city that embodies the vaulting aspiration of mankind, just like Ronaldo symbolises the insatiable ambition of the footballing-kind. The metaphor of its desire to leap into football’s stratosphere, the fillip to bolster its bid for the 2030 World Cup.

His signing was not just the whim of a filthily moneyed club, the billionaires powering the club clueless how to expend the bottomless coffers of billions they sleep over, but a statement. Perhaps, many statements are tangled within the scrawly signature of Ronaldo. Of the Middle East’s primacy in the game. Of the eventuality that the game is gravitating to the Middle East. Of the inevitability that the clubs in Europe become mere pieces in the ostentatious game of chess between the oil barons of the Middle East. Of the inexorability that the heart and soul of football remains in Europe and Latin America, but the hands that feed them are the sand-smeared, oil-greased arms from the Middle East.

There have been others before Ronaldo who have chosen the sandy shores to phase out the last days of their career, some due to contractual obligation and some others fuelled by money in their semi-retired existence. But none were as big as Ronaldo; none perhaps could be as big as him, unless Al Nassr’s fiercest rivals Al Hilal break the bank and stretch the power of oil to buy Lionel Messi for a ridiculous 300 million dollars a year, nearly twice the annual earnings of Ronaldo.

This should neither shock nor surprise, for this is no news, or nothing new in itself. The imprints of the Middle East are omnipresent in football. Just a month ago had Qatar hosted the most expensive, and one of the most thrilling, World Cup. The state owns the richest club in the world, PSG (an estimated value of 646 million dollars); the done-to-death joke during the World Cup was that the two best players in the tournament, Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe, are both on the payroll of the state.

Qatar also sponsors Bayern Munich and Roma and has a “foundation” project with Real Madrid. The other big player in the Gulf, Abu Dhabi, one of the Emirates, owns Manchester City, arguably the club that plays the slickest football in the world. The Emirates’s airlines, Fly Emirates, sponsors several clubs, including Arsenal and Real Madrid. Not to be left behind, Saudi Arabia took over Newcastle United. In a not so distant future, all of England’s elite clubs would have Middle East owners—owners of both Liverpool and Manchester United reportedly want to sell the club, Qatar could acquire Tottenham Hotspur even before this season ends.

But why exactly do they purchase the clubs? Mad passion for the game is often cited as a reason. Princes drowned in petrodollars spilling money on the game, the glistening trophies no more than mere showpieces in their showcases, players akin to performance artistes (because you can’t buy them individually fetch a whole harem).

Maybe, a long-term investment, a back-up plan for the days when oil and natural gases extinguish. Maybe, an endeavour to buy soft power, or to get an instant access to the global leisure economy, or for repetitional benefits.

A stronger word that has surfaced is sports-washing—first coined by users on Twitter 10 years ago to denote when a country or business bankrolls a popular sporting event to distract from human-rights abuses. It originates from the expression greenwashing, which gained popularity in the 1990s among environmental activists who targeted large corporations they considered guilty of projecting an environmentally conscious image while continuing to pollute.

The most pretentious claim, the West would have us believe, is that all these are for nursing a football culture in the Middle East. When Sheikh Mansour bought Manchester City, he publicly announced that he wanted to use the club as a springboard to improve football in the Gulf and enhance the international reputation of the United Arab Emirates. “We need time to become like the Premier League,” he would say. “People are pleased with the deal because we will learn about how to operate in a high level professional league.”

He has not been averse to investing back home either.What he saw in Etihad, his team reproduced at the Al Jazira Club, his first footballing love in Abu Dhabi. While none of the oil-rich nations are yet a semi-powerful footballing nation — Qatar’s own abysmal group-stage exit a classic example — there is ample proof of how imports from Europe and Latin America changed the football culture in the Middle East. None as symbolic of this as Saudi upending eventual champions Argentina with a group of tenacious and technically-honed players. The leagues in Saudi, Qatar and UAE are robust and upwardly mobile.

The climb has been gradual, but then that’s only expected, for these states have sprung into existence for less than a century. A sporting culture would take decades before it creates a sporting culture. Hosting the World Cup could be a catalyst of football’s growth in Qatar; so could be the purchase of Ronaldo. He will bring goals; and help Saudi score goals. Like it worked out for Pele and the USA.

Four and a half decades after Pele’s signing, the American soccer landscape has transformed dramatically. The USA hosted the 1994 World Cup. Two years later Major League Soccer kicked off. They have become World Cup regulars, springing the odd upset. The women’s team has won World Cup and Olympic medals. Ronaldo could have a similar influence, and he could say, “Football has finally arrived in Saudi Arabia.”

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