“The actor” Ronaldo degenerates into an instrument of power

The dark world of sportswashing
“The actor” Ronaldo degenerates into an instrument of power

By Stephan Uersfeld

In the wake of Cristiano Ronaldo, legions of aging football stars like Marco Reus will move from Europe to Saudi Arabia. The rumor mill is boiling, money springing from the ground. The race for power in the Gulf is accelerating. It’s about billions and the future.

Cristiano Ronaldo continues to settle comfortably into his illusory new world. The former world-class player is becoming a strong magnet in Saudi Arabia, attracting the big names in European football to Riyadh. In the capital of Saudi Arabia, they can make the last years of their career at least financially comfortable. In return, they give their name to the desert state for the realization of Vision 2030. This is intended to reposition the kingdom with its latent tendency to violate human rights and dismember journalists, to free it from its dependence on oil and gas exports and giving it a new, more user-friendly image.

Marco Reus, Sergio Ramos, Eden Hazard, Luka Modrić, N’Golo Kanté and Roberto Firmino: they’ve all been linked with Al Nassr since Ronaldo’s move to the board amid the Saudi desert landscape. Leaders of the Saudi Pro League transformed in a matter of weeks into what is perhaps the most popular club in world football in the mid to late thirties and is now being discussed as the alternative offer of the century in the contract negotiations. “It is quite normal that other clubs are interested in a player like Marco, whose contract expires in six months,” said Reus consultant Dirk Hebe recently and was certainly happy with the rumors that flourished before the upcoming contract negotiations in Dortmund.

According to the latest rumour, Barcelona midfield legend Sergio Busquets will travel to Riyadh. At 34, Busquets, who retired from the Spanish national team after the World Cup, is also on the home stretch of his career. He will leave Catalan giants Barca this summer. So far, it has been taken for granted that he will join David Beckham’s MLS project Inter Miami next. But the negotiations with the Florida club are dragging on, there is still no agreement. So why not Saudi Arabia, the country where Cristiano Ronaldo now resides in a gigantic bottle opener, the “Four Seasons Hotel” in Riyadh?

Saudi Arabia under pressure after sleepy start

What at first glance is only an argument in contract negotiations, at second glance, of course, also represents an Americanization of Saudi football. Just a few years ago, aging footballers were drawn almost exclusively to the league. American professional MLS. But with less than four years to go until the North American World Cup in 2026, there are as many world champions under contract as in the Bundesliga (Exequiel Palacacio of Leverkusen and Thiago Almada of Atlanta United have remained marginal figures in Qatar ). The development of football in the United States has been progressing for a long time. Footballers from European or South American leagues rarely sign there to cash in again. The league of pensioners has become an established league whose return to Europe even seems possible.

Ronaldo brings a lot of attention to his new club.

(Photo: picture alliance/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

None of this is a problem for Saudi Arabia at the moment. They just want to shine and entertain the world and their own population, which is 70% under 35-70%, with Cristiano Ronaldo. Which they have achieved honorably so far. The club’s Instagram account has already grown from over ten million followers to over eleven million since Ronaldo signed in late December, and Borussia Dortmund’s Arabic-language Twitter account has nearly reached 4.3 million followers. with 3.8 million subscribers. Little known outside of Asia, the club quickly established itself on the map of world football, if not for sporting reasons.

“Saudi Arabia realized a few years ago that it needed more than hard power, i.e. military and political resources, to be an internationally powerful nation. Danyel Reiche, a visiting scholar at Georgetown University in Qatar, recently told CNN: “You also have to invest in soft power. Qatar is showing that it can work really well.” The small neighbor of Saudi Arabia has secured its existence thanks to sporting events for a good quarter of a century and has been able to free itself from the blockade initiated by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the mid-2010s.

The great Qatar model

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Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets the Emir of Qatar (from right) at the GCC in Riyadh in December 2022.

(Photo: picture alliance/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The 2022 Winter World Cup was the emirate’s protective shield, which had long been intertwined with international politics. With the end of the tournament, which was ultimately controversial only in Europe and the United States, some Qataris fell into “post-World Cup depression”, according to local news site Doha News. Others have thrown themselves into preparations for the Olympic bid scheduled for 2036. Eventually, Qatar is supposed to become the world capital of sport. And at the same time keep building your own empire in world football. Like the City Football Group, majority-owned by the Arab Emirate’s ruling family along with flagship club Manchester City and MLS club New York City FC, Qatar is also aiming for long-term dominance in club football. .

Nasser al-Khelaifi, president and manager of Paris Saint-Germain’s Messi club, is reportedly targeting a minority stake in at least one English Premier League club with his Qatar Sports Investment (QSI). Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool FC and Manchester United are shortlisted. Over the past 12 years, Al-Khelaifi has built a stronghold in UEFA, the European Football Union. Meanwhile, Bayern Munich are currently negotiating a new high-paying contract with Qatar Airways. The publicity deal was met with great resistance from fans of the record champions, but the arguments never reached the top of the club. The emirate’s other investments include prestigious horse races in England and France, investments in the sport of cricket and of course hosting the World Athletics and Handball Championships in the 2010s.

Many world championships, Olympic ambitions, football clubs, horse races: Saudi Arabia is far from being so far away. But like its little neighbor, the kingdom now also wants to use sport as a geopolitical tool. After the first big investment in traditional English club Newcastle United, they are now taking the stars straight to the desert, also to highlight their 2030 World Cup efforts. With Ronaldo and the signing of Lionel Messi as ambassador off the field of the Kingdom, the two outstanding figures of the latest generation of world football are contractually linked to Saudi Arabia.

What the Kingdom hopes for from the 2030 World Cup

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Bin Salman celebrates his Saudis’ 2-1 victory over Argentina and FIFA boss Gianni Infantino straightens his pants.

(Picture: picture alliance / firo Sportphoto /PSI)

World Cup victory and Messi’s ultimate legend in Qatar, the state that provides much of his livelihood through Paris Saint-Germain, has made the Argentine even more valuable. In this post-World Cup January, Saudi Arabia is the center of the football star world anyway. Messi and Ronaldo will have one last show duel on the pitch in a few days and the Spanish league is flying in its stars for the Supercopa. German world champion Toni Kroos will also be in the game with Real Madrid. He shouldn’t care about the lack of rights for the LGBTQI community. Before the World Cup, he criticized Qatar for this. A complex world in which footballers must navigate and in which they sometimes lose track.

At the moment, the joint bid with Egypt and Greece is nothing but a very concrete rumor, fueled by the almighty FIFA President Gianni Infantino during the World Cup. He not only enjoyed showing off with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but also hinted at other World Championships in winter during his last press conference – a mandatory requirement for another World Cup in the desert. A World Cup which, according to some observers, could take place exclusively in Saudi Arabia and not in Greece and Egypt as well. Such a global event would also give a new image to the closed and ultra-conservative kingdom.

How Ronaldo became an actor

Like Qatar, Saudi Arabia is not above all sporting. Besides diversification and sports washing, the country is also keen to position itself as the quintessential sports stronghold of the Gulf region compared to Qatar or the equally ambitious United Arab Emirates. Football and the rather bizarre Asian Winter Games scheduled for 2029 near the still-nascent desert skyscraper town of Neom are the building blocks of this strategy. Additionally, the kingdom has made a name for itself in recent years with the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship between Andy Ruiz Jr and Anthony Joshua and the LIV Golf International Series, which has been criticized as a “money tour”. blood” because it is worth millions. As in any other self-respecting Gulf state – Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – the Formula 1 circus also makes a stopover in the country.

It’s all part of a development that is increasingly alienating sport, and of course football in the first place, from the heart of what happens on the pitch. “Calling Ronaldo the highest paid footballer in the world is like calling Tom Cruise the highest paid fighter pilot in the world,” the Guardian wrote this week: “It requires a reality check. Ronaldo is no longer involved in sport. He is an actor, public amplifier, instrument of power.” All this has already been observed during the World Cup in Qatar. Even there, the eight-hundred-time goalscorer was nothing more than a highly acclaimed professional football player. Was he the one who had long left football behind but still wowed the masses – the perfect candidate for the new pig world of football that leads straight into the geopolitical chasms of the Gulf.

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