I went to Saudi Arabia to watch Cristiano Ronaldo – this is what it is really like

Al Nassr fans try to emulate Cristiano Ronaldo - Sam Farley for The Telegraph
Al Nassr fans try to emulate Cristiano Ronaldo - Sam Farley for The Telegraph

Pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia are nothing new, but pilgrimages to that country to see ageing footballers absolutely are.

While Gazza went to China, and David Beckham headed to LA, in 2023 Saudi Arabia is rapidly becoming the destination for big name players winding down their careers with N’Golo Kanté  among those linked with joining Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, who was welcomed at Al-Ittihad this week.

I travelled to the dry, 40 degree heat to see Ronaldo, now of Al Nassr, to find out if the matchday experience of the Saudi league was developing at the same speed as the on-pitch talent. I was not the only one – sportswashing’s draw is undeniable.

The illuminated Al-Awwal Park provided a familiar enough feel with replica shirts and scarves galore for sale. Fortunately the curse of half-and-half scarves seems not to have reached the Gulf State, yet.

After parting with a reasonable 20 Riyal, just over £4, for a scarf that was absolutely not required for the local climate, I entered the ground and was greeted with what can only be described as ‘Ronaldo fever’.

Joining the smiling locals getting the yellow and blue colours of Al Nassr painted on their cheeks was a larger than life Ronaldo cut-out, hanging in the stands. Elsewhere queuing fans took turns attempting to imitate Ronaldo’s famous leap and head a ball suspended in the air. After 10 minutes of watching this oddly compelling sight, nobody had come close.

The crowd was split between those in traditional Saudi dress and those in traditional football attire. Ronaldo-emblazoned Al Nassr jerseys were everywhere with a couple of his Real Madrid numbers on show too – a few fans in their Messi PSG shirts clearly misread the Argentine’s intentions.

The Ronaldo-centric atmosphere felt rather tepid compared with English grounds, but one element on which the Saudi league can compete – besides money – is the food on offer. Instead of a Pukka Pie, chicken hot dogs and burgers were available with the pick of the choices available a chicken shawarma for just under a fiver.

If the English game can learn anything from the Saudis, introducing shawarmas across the land would be it.

The lack of alcohol on sale left fans with the choice of a sugar rush or a dry mouth with most fans opting to ferociously chew seeds in a manner Sam Allardyce would be proud of.

Among the fans were foreigners who worked in the oil industry who had been drawn into Ronaldo’s orbit. Four Chinese students I met were absolutely clear they were here for Ronaldo and Ronaldo only. They were decked out in the Portuguese’s suspect branded merchandise.

The atmosphere in the ground built before kick-off with the stands slowly filling in the 25,000-seater. Behind the home goal there was a block all in Al Nassr shirts, well orchestrated, singing and banging drums while a ‘Nassr for ever’ banner hung in the front row (a sentiment that Ronaldo may, or may not, share).

Flares are let off in the crowd - Sam Farley for The Telegraph
Flares are let off in the crowd - Sam Farley for The Telegraph

A group of 100 or so travelling Al Shabab fans were making an impressive racket while on the opposite sideline to me were the VIP seats that cost 10 times the standard entry of just over £20.

The line-ups of the teams boasted some familiar names with Ever Banega, Grzegorz Krychowiak and Luiz Gustavo amongst the most recognisable. The remainder of the teams were built from a mixture of local players and European journeymen.

It was refreshing to see that no matter where you are on the planet, the home team falling two goals behind is greeted with the same reaction. Bodies slumped in seats, groans grew progressively louder and some more rowdy fans resorted to screaming at the players.

Ronaldo’s histrionics were in fine form too as Al Nassr struggled. The bizarre half-time entertainment of the electronic dance version of the Game of Thrones theme tune rattling out of the PA system will have done little to lift his spirits.

After the break, the fans at Ronaldo-fest got exactly what they wanted. Al Nassr fought back to 2-2 which provided Ronaldo with the perfect opportunity to steal the show. The former Manchester United star picked up the ball on the left before running at the box and hitting a peach into the far right corner to secure the win.

A rare reminder of his brilliance, this was what everyone in the crowd had come for. The stadium sound system even piped in Ronaldo’s famous “Siu” exclamation to add to the celebrations. Genuine and yet somehow contrived, it was the perfect end to the experience.

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