Cristiano Ronaldo has signed a pact of blind praise with Saudi Arabia. A man for whom greed trumps all isn’t about to rock a boat filled to the brim with cash.
“If it was just about the money you’d be in Saudi Arabia earning a king’s ransom,” Piers Morgan said, sitting eyeball to eyeball with the man who six weeks later would sign a €200m-a-year contract with Al Nassr. Ronaldo ensured during that ill-advised interview that he would never work in Europe again.
He claimed during his Saudi inauguration that he had “many opportunities” to remain in Europe, which either means he had a change of heart and opted for money over competition, or he’s telling bare-faced lies. Neither would come as a surprise for a man whose journey to become a footballing great has apparently halted his development as a human being. This is the guy Amnesty International are hoping will be a spokesperson for human rights in Saudi Arabia?
If Amnesty hope Ronaldo will “draw attention” to the executions, unfair trials and the crackdown on freedom of expression and association in Saudi Arabia when they stand in direct opposition to him being paid ludicrous sums of money as the ideal sportswashing tool then they’re not barking up the wrong tree, they’re howling at a bush in a desert.
Unless the various meetings Ronaldo held with ‘those clubs’ that wanted him in Europe were in fact cover for Amnesty rendezvous in which they set out plans for his role as some sort of Saudi sleeper agent, an expectation for Ronado to call out his employers is grossly misplaced.
And they won’t truly expect him to do so. Amnesty’s statement has at least reached – via the name of Ronaldo – far more people than a typical story about the horrors of the Saudi regime would. They’re not stupid; Ronaldo’s name can still be used for good even when he’s not on board.
The Saudis won’t have been overly pleased at Ronaldo’s earnest insistence that “it’s not the end of my career to come to South Africa” against a backdrop proudly proclaiming ‘Saudi welcome to Arabia’. But they don’t need him to talk well, they just need him to be seen. Ronaldo’s commercial exploits in the coming weeks, months and years are an added bonus on top of one of the great laundering coups. Just by getting him there, they’ve already won.
It’s the perfect place for him. A place where money and status are everything. A place where sports stars are deified. A place where criticism of said sports stars won’t see the light of day. Glorious though it would be for Ronaldo’s inability to function in a pressing system to be called out against Al-Shabab on Saturday, everyone will know Ronaldo is buttering their bread, and to switch sides would be akin to walking into the press room with rainbow streaks painted on your face as you shout thanks to your pregnant out-of-wedlock partner for the lift.
And that steadfast commitment to ignore faults and blindly praise works both ways. Ronaldo engaging in some whataboutery on the back of a 4 out of 10 rating in the Saudi version of L’Equipe isn’t beyond the realms of possibility – he’s certainly not averse to childish one-upmanship – but he’s more likely to plonk his five Ballon d’Or trophies on the press conference table in a big d*ck contest than ask how many heads have been removed from torsos that day.
“I want to change the mentality of the new generation,” Ronaldo said. “I want to change the perspective of many people.” Which sounds quite profound and promising, perhaps even for human rights activists, before you remember the stage on which Ronaldo sits, with Saudi dignitaries smiling to the side of him. Then you realise he’s talking about the world’s perspective of Saudi Arabia, rather than the people within the country.
Ronaldo isn’t an inherently evil man (or at least as yet he’s not been proven to be) and his charitable works suggest he’s not as entirely self-centred as his actions on the pitch and his social media presence would have us believe. Having lived his whole life in Europe he probably believes in freedom of expression, fair trials and LGBTQ+ rights.
But a path of devotion lined with gold was always going to be too tempting for a man for whom greed and ego trump all, who has the potential to use his extraordinary platform for good, but will instead be held up as a figurehead for sportswashers and bathe in the uncontested adulation that comes with it.
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