IAN LADYMAN: Cristiano Ronaldo's Saudi move is so sad for a star who craves the spotlight. He will realise he has landed in the footballing equivalent of a black hole and soon try to find a way out again 

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IAN LADYMAN: Cristiano Ronaldo’s Saudi move is so sad for a star who craves the spotlight. He will realise he has landed in the footballing equivalent of a black hole and soon try to find a way out again

  • Ronaldo showed some leadership qualities at United when this column started
  • Now Ronaldo is preparing for life in Saudi Arabia after parting ways with the club
  • Pele, who recently passed away, ended his career in a footballing backwater, too
  • The Brazilian legend played out his days in America for the New York Cosmos
  • However, the circumstances for Pele were slightly different to that of Ronaldo

A year ago this column began 2022 by suggesting Cristiano Ronaldo show some leadership qualities at Manchester United. Now he is preparing for life in Saudi Arabia. So that one went well.

Pele ended his career in a footballing backwater, too. The great Brazilian, who died last week, played out his days in America for the New York Cosmos. It's just that the circumstances were slightly different.

Pele had spent 19 years at one club, Santos in his home country. Only between 1961 and 1968 was the club particularly successful. But Pele stayed because that's what you did in those days. The path between South America and the riches of European football was not trodden back then.

A year ago this column began 2022 by suggesting Cristiano Ronaldo show some leadership qualities at Manchester United. Now he is preparing for life in Saudi Arabia

A year ago this column began 2022 by suggesting Cristiano Ronaldo show some leadership qualities at Manchester United. Now he is preparing for life in Saudi Arabia

A year ago this column began 2022 by suggesting Cristiano Ronaldo show some leadership qualities at Manchester United. Now he is preparing for life in Saudi Arabia

So everybody understood exactly what Pele was doing when he came out of semi-retirement to be a figurehead for the North American Soccer League in 1975. Players like George Best and Johan Cruyff were to follow him. 

They were bringing some publicity to a developing league, for sure. But, essentially, they were there to earn significant amounts of money to see them in to retirement. Nobody blamed them because professional football was not a guaranteed route to financial comfort in the 1970s, even if you did happen to be one of the greatest to ever pull on boots.

The 37-year-old has signed a deal to play for Saudi Arabian Pro League club Al-Nassr

The 37-year-old has signed a deal to play for Saudi Arabian Pro League club Al-Nassr

This move has come after Ronaldo's bombshell interview with Piers Morgan on TalkTV

This move has come after Ronaldo's bombshell interview with Piers Morgan on TalkTV

The gig was a good one for Pele, too. He scored goals, attracted record crowds and helped the Cosmos win things. On one of his early personal appearances in Boston, such a crowd turned up that Pele was actually slightly injured in the crush.

None of this lies in store for Ronaldo in Saudi Arabia. Football is a global game in the purest sense these days in a way that it wasn't in the 1970s. In Riyadh, where Ronaldo will earn an awful lot of money that he doesn't need, there are already huge images of players like Marcus Rashford on display in the shopping malls. They have recently bought their own football club, too. Newcastle United are riding high on Saudi money (and some impressive coaching) in the Premier League.

So Saudi Arabia will be glad to have Ronaldo, certainly. His new club Al Nassr can expect to put a few numbers on to their average attendance of a little over 8,000. 

But Ronaldo will not lead a football revolution in Saudi Arabia. He will not change the way the game is viewed either inside or outside of the Gulf state. 

Pele ended his career in a footballing backwater, too. The Brazilian, who died last week, played out his days in America for the New York Cosmos. But, the circumstances were different

Pele ended his career in a footballing backwater, too. The Brazilian, who died last week, played out his days in America for the New York Cosmos. But, the circumstances were different

Thousands of football fans attended the New York Cosmos to watch Pele in action

Thousands of football fans attended the New York Cosmos to watch Pele in action

The chances are that he will realise pretty soon that he has landed in the footballing equivalent of a black hole and soon try to find a way out again, back to relevance. If he sees out his two-and-a-half year contract I will be astonished.

And this is the thing about Ronaldo and his move to the east. Anyone who has tracked his career and indeed watched him at the recent World Cup will know that it's relevance and a sense of self-worth, not money, that the 37-year-old needs to survive. The spotlight gives him oxygen and it's this, among other things, that makes his move to Saudi Arabia so desperately, desperately sad.

Pele took his leave of us last week not as a perfect man — there are none of those — but as an icon whose sporting reputation remained unblemished until to the end.

I know what I think about Pele. We all do. But what will I tell my daughter one day about Ronaldo? Once I thought I knew but now I don't. What a shame that is.

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