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The arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo has already sent the football-obsessed Saudi public into a frenzy

. The Portuguese icon signed for Al-Nassr after leaving Manchester United on a free transfer and was welcomed with a ceremony fit for a king. The neon-lit Kingdom Center, once the tallest tower in the city, is now overshadowed by the presence of Ronaldo. His name in the lights, the “Hala Ronaldo” signage, fireworks and sparklers that greeted his unveiling as an Al Nassr player this month have all added to the excitement. Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia represents a cash grab before the end of his playing career, and it’s sure to be adored by a young, Western-minded, football-obsessed audience. Saudi Arabia’s obsession with football has exploded since Ronaldo’s transfer, and locals were chanting his name at the 25,000-seat King Saud long before his ceremonial arrival. News of Ronaldo agreeing to a deal with Al Nassr had broken in the Spanish press the same week, and the anticipation was palpable. When he was stripped and ready to play in the 73rd minute, a guttural refrain of “Ronaldo, Ronaldo” was sent into the temperate, Arabian night. It almost sounded like a call to prayer. Those prayers were answered when the £173million-a-year deal to make the 37-year-old the highest-paid sportsman in the world was confirmed this month. “It’s something amazing, wonderful,” said Moosa, an Al Nassr fan in his twenties. “But don’t stop at Ronaldo, we need Messi, we need everyone.” Al Nassr supporters celebrated Ronaldo’s arrival with enthusiasm, and it was his name in the lights that greeted his unveiling as an Al Nassr player this month. Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia is sure to be adored by a young, Western-minded, football-obsessed audience. The country’s government sees sport as a vehicle to the West and acceptance in a world beyond its own borders of human rights abuses, and locals were chanting Ronaldo’s name at the 25,000-seat King Saud long before his ceremonial arrival. News of Ronaldo agreeing to a deal with Al Nassr had broken in the Spanish press the same week, and the anticipation was palpable. When he was stripped and ready to play in the 73rd minute, a guttural refrain of “Ronaldo, Ronaldo” was sent into the temperate, Arabian night. It almost sounded like a call to prayer. Those prayers were answered when the £173million-a-year deal to make the 37-year-old the highest-paid sportsman in the world was confirmed this month. Al Nassr supporters celebrated Ronaldo’s arrival with enthusiasm, and it was his name in the lights that greeted his unveiling as an Al Nassr player this month. Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia is sure to be a catalyst for the growth of football in the country, with the government seeing sport as a vehicle to the West and acceptance in a world beyond its own borders of human rights abuses. Hatim Alhasani, 31, filmmaker and media coordinator for the Saudi Pro League, said: “This is an opportunity for him and for us, for the league to grow.” Saudis are crazy about football, so passionate. Ronaldo will feel it. He will also earn a lot of money! When you ask who pays, the general answer is: “Who knows?”. Al Nassr, as an isolated club, certainly cannot afford Ronaldo. But a wealthy council of sponsors, we are told, can. Such conversations lead to the topic of sportswashing, whether it’s signing Ronaldo, the Public Investment Fund takeover of Newcastle United or the morally bankrupt firm LIV Golf. Amnesty International, however, claims signing Ronaldo is yet another stunt designed to deflect human rights abuses. Dana Ahmed, Amnesty’s Middle East researcher, said: “Cristiano Ronaldo’s signing by Al Nassr is part of a wider pattern of sports washing in Saudi Arabia. It is highly likely that the Saudi authorities will encourage Ronaldo’s presence in the country as a way to distract from the country’s appalling human rights record. “Instead of uncritically praising Saudi Arabia, Ronaldo should use his considerable public platform to draw attention to human rights issues.” Ronaldo’s arrival has already sent the football-obsessed Saudi public into a frenzy, and his presence is sure to be a catalyst for the growth of football in the country. With a new giant in town, everything else will remain in its shadow.

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