Maybe Saudi Arabia is the best destination for Cristiano Ronaldo after all

Cristiano Ronaldo was officially unveiled as an Al-Nassr player earlier this month.

“Is it also that you want to keep playing at the highest level, you want to keep breaking records, play in the Champions League?”, Piers Morgan asks, striking a tone that somehow falls equidistant between doe-eyed labrador puppy and desperate used car salesman glibly extolling the virtues of a defective convertible to a clueless customer in the throes of a mid-life crisis. “Again it comes back to my gut feeling about you; if it was just about money, you would be in Saudi Arabia earning the king’s ransom, but that’s not what motivates you.”

Without skipping so much as a beat, almost as if the answer is pre-recorded and pre-determined by some artificial intelligence program or other, Cristiano Ronaldo responds: “Exactly, because I still believe that I can score many many goals and help the team. I believe I am still good enough to help my national team, even Manchester United.”

If this was an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, that would be the exact moment in Morgan’s controversial interview with the five-time Ballon d’Or winner at which the screen makes a hard cut to black while Heinz Kiessling’s ‘Temptation Sensation’ jauntily drifts by in the background. The newly-unveiled title card reads: ‘Cristiano Ronaldo moves to Saudi Arabia’.

Cristiano Ronaldo has signed for Saudi Arabian side Al-Nassr. (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)

You see, it turns out that Piers’ gut feeling about his bestie was wrong all along. Which is quite something when you consider the fact that at least 60% of the contents of his stomach is actually various crumbs and detritus collected from the upper leather of Ronaldo’s boots. But hey, we all misjudge things from time to time. I mean, who could have predicted that a man with an ego the size of a Death Star, who has previously advertised everything from Coca-Cola to KFC despite declaring a blood feud against E-numbers and spending his leisure time stalking the aisles of his local Currys roundhouse kicking deep fat fryers, would abandon his vows and compromise his pride in the face of overwhelming financial incentives? Not I, for one!

Ronaldo’s career has slowly, sadly descended into a toe-curling case study in performative straw-clutching. They say the first step in resolving any problem is admitting it, and yet it’s hard to envisage a character of CR7’s galactic self-belief ever vocalising any such internal doubts over his ability or his longevity. In truth, they probably don’t exist. Sure, there have been moments of embarrassing revisionism and aspiration shrinkage - see paragraphs one through three of this column - but even these have been portrayed as managed, tactical retreats rather than humiliating implosions. Indeed, in the case of Ronaldo’s prior comments on Saudi Arabia, they have been ignored entirely. Such is the way of things in a waning cult of personality.

And so, here we find ourselves circling a bizarre new reality with all the tense suspicion of two chimpanzees in a knife fight. Cristiano Ronaldo, a man who just a few short weeks ago was pontificating on his Champions League credentials and his dreams of World Cup glory, is officially an Al-Nassr player, plying his trade in the Saudi Pro League; his diminishing reputation and his hunger for acknowledgement at diametric odds like those of a half-forgotten soap opera star turning out for panto at some provincial new town theatre or other. All he needs is Jedward whipping in balls from either wing and the illusion would be complete.

Or at least, that’s how it feels here in England. Ronaldo’s messy departure from Manchester United a short while ago - exacerbated by the exploits of a certain other Mr. Messi, Morgan’s sycophantic agenda, and a subsequent upturn in fortunes at Old Trafford - has rendered the 37-year-old null and a little ridiculous. Some see him as a figure of division, others as a target for mockery.

But there are no such dismissals in Saudi Arabia, where the player’s arrival has been met with a kind of fixated hysteria; a Beatlemania for the FIFA generation. His unveiling was celebrated beneath spotlights and plumes of coloured smoke like the raucous death rattles of a Glastonbury headline set, his every painstaking, meticulously-vetted social media update is met with delirium and tens of millions of likes. This is the biggest thing that has ever happened to the domestic game in Saudi Arabia, and it is reflected in the delight of local fans. They don’t care if Ronaldo is a hand-me-down, or that he is quite clearly past his best, despite his protestations. They just care that he’s there.

Of course there are issues with his transfer that are deserving of scrutiny. On a fundamental level, is it ever ethical for anybody to be paid an annual salary of £173 million? And more to the point, where exactly is that money coming from? In the words of Dana Ahmed, Amnesty’s Middle East researcher: “Al-Nassr’s signing of Cristiano Ronaldo fits into a wider pattern of sportswashing in Saudi Arabia. It is highly likely that the Saudi authorities will promote Ronaldo’s presence in the country as a means of distracting from the country’s appalling human rights record. Instead of offering uncritical praise of Saudi Arabia, Ronaldo should use his considerable public platform to draw attention to human-rights issues.”

But again, to reiterate, the majority of fans don’t seem to care, and perhaps, despite everything, that is why Saudi Arabia is actually the perfect destination for Ronaldo after all. Away from the glare and competition of the European game, he can continue to live out his wildest fantasies and delusions of grandeur, like a toddler gleefully burying action figures in a sandpit. Yes, he is more brand than man, a sentient billboard playing god in a model village, and to some that would be hell on earth, but to Ronaldo, maybe that is enough. He can finally be the biggest fish in a small, oily pond once more.