This week, Cristiano Ronaldo was unveiled as the newest member of a Saudi Arabian soccer club, Al-Nassr.
The Saudi league doesn’t have an international TV rights deal. Some of its stadiums hold fewer than 10,000 people. Most of them are never anywhere close to sold out.
This isn’t the B leagues. This is whatever comes after the alphabet.
Why’d he go? At 37, with his talent ebbing and his ego continuing to flow, Ronaldo’s top-tier options in Europe had dried out. So he went for the money. Al Nassr will reportedly pay him €200-million ($286-million) a year. Ronaldo alone now makes as much or more than every club in the NFL.
A faded legend looking for one last jackpot isn’t new. What’s new is what Ronaldo has to do for that money. It isn’t playing soccer.
Ronaldo already seems to be getting a sense of how much he’s going to have to put up with to earn this cheddar.
At Manchester United, Ronaldo’s last team, the interview room is the size of an airplane hangar, with stadium seating and multiple points of access.
At Al Nassr, Ronaldo made his debut with the media in a room the size of a decent walk-in closet. The journalists sat cheek by jowl right on top of his podium, which was a glorified desk. The sound recording was tinny, the lighting overbright and the camera work choppy. This was the biggest moment in Saudi sports history, and everything about it screamed ‘high-school assembly’.
When Ronaldo left the room, he had to wade back through the crowd to reach the door. More than a few members of the media reached out to slap him on the shoulder. The look on Ronaldo’s face said, ‘However many hundred thousand I just made, it wasn’t enough.’
The pull quote from that news conference was a self-conscious echo of Jose Mourinho’s famous “I am a special one” line.
“This contract is unique because I’m a unique player as well,” Ronaldo said. “Great!” trilled the moderator, while the journalists began to clap.
The whole thing happened in English because the audience for it was not just Arabic. It was everyone. This wasn’t a debut. It was the first in a series of global advertisements.
Ronaldo was not hired to win Saudi championships. He is now the world’s highest paid ambassador. According to Spanish sports giant Marca, his contract extends far beyond athletic duties.
Ronaldo has been hired to become the public face of Saudi Arabia’s bid for the 2030 men’s World Cup. The parameters of that bid are still unclear. The Kingdom may go it alone. It may choose to be a co-host along with Egypt, Morocco and/or Greece. FIFA loves the idea of co-hosting. It makes it harder to triangulate criticism.
So while Ronaldo is contracted to play until 2025, he is under contract for five years longer than that. Some day, he’ll be getting a million for every grip and grin at the Riyadh airport.
The other half of this boldface charm offensive is already in place – Lionel Messi. Messi is a part-time, $30-million-per-year ambassador for the Saudi tourism board.
If you spent any time in Qatar during the World Cup, you could not avoid being pummelled by his TV ad for it. In it, a serene, backpacked Messi joins a tour group to hike the verdant Saudi mountains. As you imagine him doing all the time.
Ronaldo x Messi. The ultimate soccer power duo, finally together on the same team. It’s not exactly how you imagined this going, is it?
The wisdom of this approach won’t be clear until we see who wins what. Obviously, Saudi Arabia has the money. So what does it care? At the very least, this gets its name out there.
But it’s difficult to underestimate the ability of celebrity to co-opt the powerful. Power is fun, but it doesn’t make your kids think you’re cool. Everyone wants to get their picture taken with a star. For some consideration, Saudi Arabia can now arrange to make that happen.
What we do know for certain is that at the highest levels, the Qatar World Cup is now judged an unqualified success.
All that criticism? All those op-eds, televised screeds and garment-rending on social media? If the hoped-for effect was to send a warning shot over the heads of dictatorships and quasi-dictatorships everywhere to lay off our sports events, they missed. They didn’t even shoot in the right direction.
Saudi Arabia is Qatar, but larger, richer and even more politically misaligned with the Western world. And after getting a good, up-close look at what it was like getting roughed up by the global media day after day for weeks on end, the Saudis have apparently thought to themselves, ‘Yeah, I think we can handle that. Let’s start making phone calls and writing cheques.’
So what’s the plan now? Should everyone start being outraged immediately, or are we going to save some powder for a year out? Is it the same plan as last time – yell very loudly and then watch anyway?
Were you in charge in Saudi Arabia, what’s the lesson you’d have taken from all this?
On the one hand, we in the West have our ethics. On the other, there’s Wales First Minister Mark Drakeford.
Drakeford is a solid leftie member of the Labour Party. In his role as national leader, he went to Qatar to catch a few games. When asked why a right-thinker such as himself would do that, Drakeford told reporters that he would go, in part, to “shine a light” on human-rights abuses.
While there, Drakeford stayed in a five-star Ritz-Carlton. Guess who paid for it? Because it wasn’t Drakeford or his government. It was his hosts. I guess that if a light was shined, it did so at the Ritz’s pool bar.
There is still a nuanced conversation to be had about who should hold global sports events and why. If we’re serious about that, there needs to be a subsequent discussion about what we plan to do if things don’t hit our standard. If you’re not willing to walk, there’s no point in complaining about it.
But if the hope was that we in the West could fool other countries into doing what exactly we want while also giving us precisely what we like, it appears that ship may have sailed.
Novak Djokovic shares message to Australian Open runner-up Elena Rybakina – Tennis World USA
Novak Djokovic congratulated Australian Open runner-up Elena Rybakina on “an amazing tournament.” On Saturday, 23-year-old Rybakina fell just short of landing her second Grand Slam title. In the Australian Open final, Rybakina was up by a set before 24-year-old Aryna Sabalenka stormed back to win 4-6 6-3 6-4.
Six months ago, Djokovic and Rybakina lifted titles at Wimbledon. “@lenarybakina, amazing tournament,” Djokovic captioned his Instagram Story.
Novak Djokovic congratulates Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina
Djokovic congratulates Rybakina
Rybakina has now made Grand Slam finals in two of the last three Major tournaments.
After winning Wimbledon and finishing as runner-up at the Australian Open, Rybakina admits her confidence levels have increased and she now believes even more that she can win Grand Slams. “For sure, that’s the goal, to be in the second week of all the Grand Slam, to play finals.
I mean, now I have more confidence of course even after this final. I just need to work hard, same as I did during pre-season and actually throughout the years, be healthy, and for sure the results are going to come. I would say I’m trying to not think about expectations and everything.
Still after a great pre-season like this I was thinking I should show it on the court. Then, of course, the results are going to be there. First few weeks was not that great…but I think in the end it’s just confidence to go forward, to keep on working.
I feel now good physically also. I know if I’m going to keep on working, the results are going to be (good),” Rybakina said after the match, per Tennis Majors. Rybakina has proved over the last six months that she has what it takes to be a legitimate Grand Slam contender.
En route to reaching the Australian Open final, Rybakina defeated world No 1 Iga Swiatek. It will be interesting to see how will Rybakina do after a strong Australian Open run.
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