Football Hell or Valhalla?

In Al-Nasser’s fan shop, shirts bearing the name of the latest acquisition are hard to find.Image by AFP

Willem van Hanekhem was not beaten by fanatical moralists unless he interrupted the practice of prayer. But the line is called Muas The coach told his players in May 1996 when he returned from his brief stint at Saudi Arabia’s top club Al-Hilal. In terms of gameplay and setting, it was disappointing not to have a different prince as the boss every time.

Life itself? He used to watch all kinds of sports on his campus television (‘I didn’t know what cricket was, but now I know all the rules of the game’). When a ‘Prince Waff’ was no longer there due to ‘business’, Van Haneghem thought that was enough and left.

Playing or coaching football in Saudi Arabia or one of the surrounding countries is known as a well-paid final contract in a competition with footballers who lack motivation, fitness or talent. With the signing of five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo by leading Saudi club Al-Nasser, that image should be tilted.

motivated ambitions

Saudi Arabia wants to become a great soccer country. Saudi previously bought Newcastle United and brought in Lionel Messi as ambassador. Saudi Arabia’s national team won the World Cup against Messi and his bodyguards and later became world champions. The aim is to host the World Cup soon, although the service has only just been offered to the Middle East. But the World Cup in Qatar is precisely what is seen as a triumph in the region, fueling ambitions in its much larger neighbour.

Al-Nasr spoke on the website about signing as “the world’s greatest athlete”. With the ever-ambitious Ronaldo, the wear and tear is finally over – so much so that even a club like Eintracht Frankfurt thanked him for the collaboration – he is the world’s most followed footballer on social media with 527 million followers on Instagram. 100 million more than Messi.

Ronaldo would earn half a billion euros at the club in 2.5 years from Riyadh. There was still a misunderstanding. Why play football for some boring prince in the mid-thirties and technically incompetent Arabs?

Soccer mad country

According to Mo Rehi, that image no longer matches reality. Reihi (28), a former NEC and Sparta player, played football in Saudi Arabia with Al-Badin for the past two seasons. ‘More and more top twenty people are playing from South America and Europe. Saudi Arabian players are also good and showed in the World Cup. It really is a football crazy country. I have played in great conditions in stadiums with 60,000 spectators.

Former Feyenoord captain Karim El Ahmadi, who has played for Al-Ittihad for the past four years, is unable to walk the streets in Jeddah. “I’m not going to lie that finances played a big part when I decided to switch, but I really bonded with the fans. They are very involved; men, women and children. You have to answer to everyone on the street about the performance of your club. You feel that pressure. I Really had to work in. Physically and in pace it outshines the Premier League, especially in the summer months which can be very tough.

Many ex-Premier League players playing in Saudi Arabia have been relegated or had to pack their bags after six months. Raihi: ‘That’s saying something. In the Club World Cup, Al-Hilal struggled against Chelsea in the semi-finals.’

‘Very Western’

Retired El Ahmadi: ‘I have seen the country develop. Saudi Arabia has the best league in Asia. Life in cities like Jeddah and Riyadh is more westernized with beaches, luxury restaurants and hotels. Really great.’

Manifestations of ‘Vision 2030’ are ubiquitous in cities. Then Saudi Arabia wants to host the World Cup with Egypt and Greece. Rayhi: ‘I truly believe that Ronaldo also chose Saudi Arabia’s plan. Of course, the money is good, but they want to develop football in all areas and width. A lot is invested in youth academies, including women’s football. Good players are brought to Saudi Arabia.’

El Ahmadi, who travels to Jeddah next week to watch Al-Ittihad’s heated city derby against Al-Ahly, fully understands Ronaldo’s move. “I think it’s lopsided that people would have thought it would be okay if he went to America when Saudi Arabia has a lot of football culture, fan experience and ambition. It didn’t stop with Ronaldo. They want to get a great player for every big club. Saudi Arabia is not over yet.’

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