Fans are invited to see if they can jump as high as Cristiano Ronaldo. Photo: Sam Farley for The Telegraph
Pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia Arabia is nothing new, but a pilgrimage to the country to see aging footballers is an absolute must.
While Gazza left for China, and David Beckham headed to Los Angeles, in 2023 Saudi Arabia is fast becoming a destination for high-profile players ending their careers with H'Golo Kante among those linked with joining Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, who was hailed in Al-Ittihad this week.
الكرة الذهبية تضيء الجوهرة المشعة 🤩💛🖤#Benzema2Ittihad pic.twitter.com/NSEzrG2 yes
— نادي الاتحاد السعودي (@ittihad) June 8, 2023
I went into the dry, 40-degree heat to see Ronaldo, now with Al-Nasr, to see if the Saudi league experience is evolving with the same speed, that and talent on the field. I was not the only one – Sportswashing's draw is undeniable.
The illuminated Al Awwal Park created a familiar enough atmosphere, with replica shirts and scarves galore for sale. Fortunately, the curse of the half-scarves does not seem to have reached the Gulf countries yet.
After parting with a reasonable 20 riyals, just over £4, for a scarf that is absolutely unnecessary for the local climate, I entered the land and was met with what can only be described as “Ronaldo fever”.
Joining the smiling locals as they painted the yellow and blue colors of Al Nasr on their cheeks was more than Ronaldo's life hanging in the stands. Elsewhere, fans took turns trying to imitate Ronaldo's famous jump and headbutt a ball suspended in the air. After 10 minutes of observing this strangely breathtaking sight, no one has approached it.
The crowd was divided between those in traditional Saudi clothing and those in traditional football attire. Ronaldo's Al Nasr T-shirts were adorned everywhere, along with a couple of his Real Madrid numbers – a few fans in Messi PSG jerseys clearly misunderstood the Argentine's intentions. . with English territory, but one element in which the Saudi league can compete, besides money, is the food on offer. Instead of Pukka Pie, chicken hot dogs and hamburgers were offered, as well as chicken shawarma for only five rupees.
If the English game can learn anything from the Saudis, it will be the introduction of shawarma throughout the country.The lack of alcohol on sale left fans with a choice: sugar fever or dry mouth, and most fans choose to chew the seeds furiously in a way that Sam Allardyce would be proud of.
Among the fans were foreigners who worked in the oil industry who were drawn into Ronaldo's orbit. The four Chinese students I met were absolutely certain that they were only there for Ronaldo and Ronaldo. They were decorated with a suspicious brand of the Portuguese.
The atmosphere in the stadium was created before the start of the match, when 25,000 spectators slowly filled the stands. Outside the home goal was a block dressed in Al-Nasr T-shirts, well choreographed, singing and drumming, and in the front row there was a “Nasr Forever” poster (a sentiment that Ronaldo may or may not share).Al Nasr fans put on a show. Photo: Sam Farley for The Telegraph
A group of 100 or so traveling Al Shabaab fans made an impressive noise while on the opposite side of me were VIP seats costing 10 times the standard price of just over £20.
< p>Line-ups From the teams there were familiar names, among which were Ever Banega, Grzegorz Krychowiak and Luis Gustavo. The remaining teams were formed from local players and European journeymen.
It was nice to see that no matter where you are on the planet, a home team two goals behind gets the same reaction. Bodies fell on the seats, the moans grew louder, and a few more noisy fans started yelling at the players.
Ronaldo's game was also in great shape while Al Nassr struggled. Whimsical intermission entertainment of an electronic dance version of the Game of Thrones theme song blaring from the PA system did little to lift his spirits.
After the break, Ronaldo Fest fans got exactly what they wanted. Al-Nasr bounced back 2-2, giving Ronaldo the perfect opportunity to outshine everyone. The former Manchester United star picked up the ball from the left before running up to the box and hitting a peach into the far right corner to secure the win.
A rare reminder of his genius, this is what everyone in the crowd came for. The stadium's sound system even played Ronaldo's famous “Sioux” exclamation to add to the conviviality. Authentic and at the same time somehow far-fetched, it was the perfect ending to the experience.