A huge white Range Rover with almost opaque windows glides past several dirt soccer fields occupied by children southwest of Riyadh to park in the inner parking lot of the small sports town of Al-Nassr. Real Madrid’s training session this Friday is scheduled there half an hour later. Two uniformed guys in suits and ties sit in the front seats. His passenger travels hidden behind.
Later, when the Madrid players were already running around the practice field, a rumble rose from the changing room tunnel, through which the passenger appeared, who finally emerged joking with the journalists: “The Spanish are heavy,” he said. Cristiano Ronaldo. He immediately gained the refuge of the bench, where he began to chat with Carlo Ancelotti, whom he welcomed in the facilities of his new football adventure: “Is the field okay?” He asked him.
The Portuguese had scheduled a work session in the same place after the one in Madrid, but he brought his arrival earlier and, in addition to chatting with the coach, greeted a small procession of employees with whom he had met during his years at the Bernabéu. He joked with Roberto Carlos and showed Chendo his abs by lifting up his black jersey.
Cristiano completes his first days in Saudi Arabia with features of a diplomatic mission. From the vehicle in which they drive him from one place to another, to the agenda, in which he hosted Madrid yesterday. A couple of nights after his arrival, videos of his dinner with Saudi Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal in Diriyah, the kingdom’s historic first capital, today a picturesque suburb with suggestive adobe constructions. Al-Faisal, one of the main facilitators of the hiring of Cristiano, supported with government funds, announced on the day of the signing that the great operation was only the first, since they were willing to support other clubs to close “agreements of quality with international stars”.
The Portuguese, the spearhead of the Saudi plan to boost the country’s image through soccer, held another important meeting this week in Riyadh. Roberto Martínez, the new Portugal coach, flew to Arabia to meet with him and with the Portuguese who play for Valencia (Thierry Correia and Almeida) and Betis (Rui Silva and William Carvalho). The Spanish coach has proposed to speak in person with the players of the team that he has just taken over before starting work. His list began in Riyadh.
There Cristiano, after greeting the people of Madrid, went to the locker room, changed, took pictures with players from his old team and returned to the practice field to train. Al-Nassr, leaders of the league, visit second-placed Al-Shabab tonight, although the Portuguese will not be able to play, as he has one of the two games pending with which he arrived.
The Spanish Vicente Moreno, former Espanyol coach, will sit on the rival bench tonight: “It is a pity that Cristiano cannot be there, because it would give him more impact. We played at home and I’m sure there would be more people”. Moreno arrived in Arabia driven in part by concerns about spending too much time in the reserves after leaving the Catalan club: “I didn’t want to stay at home watching the teams start,” he says by phone. “I had considered the possibility of accepting this type of experience in the medium or long term, but I prefer to be active. And it is no longer just an experience. I want to take the opportunity to fight and win titles”.
Under the command of the Spanish, Al-Shabab, which is not the most powerful club in the country and in which Santi Mina and Éver Banega play, has occupied the first place in the table during the first 13 days.
The championship, which admits eight foreigners per team, has its crumb, as Raúl Caneda, who led Al-Ittihad and Al-Nassr between 2012 and 2016, explains from Sansenxo: “The Saudi Arabian league has always been the most important league in Asia, it has been for the last 30 years,” he says. “It is also the most followed league in the Arab world, it is the focus of the Arab world, of the entire Maghreb, where there is great passion for football.” The intensity of the fans caught Caneda’s attention: “Some of his footballers are myths there and throughout the Arab world. It is true that they are not known in Europe, but it is because they earn money in their country. With the footballers, it’s crazier there than here, absolute madness.”
Soccer occupies a fundamental place in Saudi society promoted by its government, which after the team defeated Argentina in the World Cup, decreed a holiday in the country.
Moreno believes that that demonstration in Qatar serves to gauge the level of his footballers: “The local player is a talented player.” Although he explains that they are still in the process of refining the methods and work, something to which the fact that all the coaches in the league are foreigners should contribute. “They see football in an increasingly professional way, but they still perceive it more as something to enjoy. They like more relaxed training sessions, more than games”.
In any case, both coaches agree that Cristiano has not landed in a championship in which he can walk around, as Moreno says: “Cristiano in himself is competitive. He demands himself, it is not necessary to be demanded. And that is going to be necessary, because there are good players. If he gets carried away, he starts badly to make a difference ”.
Caneda points in the same direction: “The demand for Cristiano is going to be very high. It is an operation that the State pays for”. And he remembers the warning he received when he arrived at Al-Ittihad: “They told you that Bebeto had been a disaster [fichó por ese club en 2002, con 38 años]. They are footballers who are older and it does not give them to make a difference. He came from being a star and here he had a lot of pressure, because the expectations were very high. And it went wrong because his performance did not improve and the environment ended up becoming very hostile ”.
Even the presidents let their passion run with less qualms than in Europe: “Prince Faisal bin Turki, the president of Al Nassr, sat with me on the bench. But not to interfere. He was very respectful,” he recalls.
Now the position is occupied by Musalli Al-Muammar, who next Thursday will host Paris Saint-Germain at the Mrsool Park stadium, which will be Cristiano’s first match with Al-Nassr, who will match Messi on the pitch , something guaranteed by contract. Another mission of Saudi worldwide projection for the Portuguese.
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