ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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Jubilant Saudis celebrate arrival of soccer star Ronaldo

Portuguese player to earn 200 million euros to play for Al Nassr, helping lift cachet of Saudi soccer and breathing new life into slumping forward after Manchester United blowup

A picture taken early January 3, 2023 in Riyhad, shows a billboard welcoming the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo to Arabia's Al Nassr club. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP)
A picture taken early January 3, 2023 in Riyhad, shows a billboard welcoming the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo to Arabia's Al Nassr club. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) — Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo arrived in Riyadh ahead of his grand unveiling before thousands of fans at Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr club on Tuesday, after sealing a shock move estimated at more than 200 million euros.

The 37-year-old, a five-time winner of the Ballon d’Or, touched down in the capital late on Monday, according to Al Ekhbariya state run TV, and is staying at a luxury hotel with his entourage.

“He brought a big team of assistants and even a private security firm,” an official told AFP.

There are high security measures around the airport with many police cars and checkpoints.

Ronaldo, who left Manchester United under a cloud after slamming the club in a TV interview, will appear at Al Nassr’s 25,000-capacity Mrsool Park stadium in Riyadh at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, officials said.

The latest, and possibly final, chapter in an illustrious career comes weeks after Portugal’s quarter-final exit from the World Cup in neighboring Qatar, where he spent time on the bench while his great rival Lionel Messi lifted the trophy with Argentina.

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring a goal during the World Cup group H soccer match between Portugal and Ghana, at the Stadium 974 in Doha, Qatar, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Ronaldo’s signing until June 2025 is just the latest foray into top-level sports by oil-rich Saudi, which has moved into Formula One, boxing and golf and snapped up English club Newcastle United.

Critics have dubbed the strategy “sportswashing” — an attempt by the conservative country to distract attention from its human rights record.

Al Nassr is expecting a full stadium for the unveiling, according to one official who did not want to be named because he was not authorized to speak to media.

Ronaldo is by far the biggest star to play in Saudi Arabia, although other heavyweights including George Weah, Pep Guardiola and Xavi also had stints in the wealthy Gulf in the twilight of their careers.

Al Nassr, the nine-time Saudi league champions, have called Ronaldo’s signing “more than history in the making,” claiming he will inspire the rest of the league and even the country.

In a tweet, Saudi Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal pledged to “support the rest of our clubs for quality deals with international stars soon.”

United terminated Ronaldo’s contract during the World Cup after an explosive interview where he said he felt “betrayed” by the club and had no respect for coach Erik ten Hag.

An employee wraps for a customer a t-shirt showing the name of Saudi football club al-Nassr’s new Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo at a sports shop carrying the club’s paraphernalia in the capital Riyadh on January 2, 2023. (Fayez Nureldine / AFP)

The Portuguese forward has long been one of the top-paid players in football, earning a reported salary of 31 million euros ($33m) at Juventus before taking a pay-cut to rejoin United.

Ronaldo has won five Champions League titles, league titles in Italy with Juventus, in Spain with Real Madrid and in England with United.

He is also the top scorer in the Champions League and with the Portuguese national team, with whom he won Euro 2016.

In Qatar, he became the first man to score at five World Cups with his penalty in the group-stage win over Ghana.

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