Cristiano Ronaldo’s new club coach Rudi Garcia on Sunday compared the Portuguese star’s arrival at Al-Nassr in Saudi Arabia to Pele’s signing with the New York Cosmos in 1975.
“It’s a bit like Pele’s arrival” in what was then the North American Soccer League, Garcia told AFP. “Especially for the development of football, sport and culture in Saudi Arabia.”
At 34, Pele came out of partial retirement to spark an explosion of interest in football in the United States. Ronaldo, at 37, is coming out of a bitter divorce with Manchester United.
“It’s great. Great for us, for Al-Nassr. Great for Saudi Arabia,” said Frenchman Garcia. “Cristiano Ronaldo is more than a player. He is one of the best players in the world.”
Garcia was speaking on a visit the Riyadh bivouac of the Dakar Rally which is being held in Saudi Arabia and, like Ronaldo’s high-priced signing, has drawn criticism that the country’s leaders are “sportswashing”, or trying to deflect attention from the kingdom’s human rights record.
“For the development of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, it is very, very important,” said Garcia. “If today the Dakar is here, it brings home that in sports and cultural development a country can do a lot.”
“It’s amazing how much it’s put a spotlight on our club. Now everyone knows where our club is around the world,” said Garcia of Ronaldo’s off-field impact, particularly on social media.
“We must have gone from 800,000 (followers) to 10 million in a few hours, a few days, because of Cristiano’s arrival.”
Ronaldo signed a contract until 2025 with the Saudi club in a deal worth a reported 200 million euros.
Garcia said he was delighted with his new star.
“The greatest champions are the easiest to manage,” he said.
“He blended in with the squad. We saw him joking and laughing with pleasure with his new teammates. He was with us for the last game, even if he couldn’t play. He was in the locker room, riding his bike.”
Garcia said the club was respecting Ronaldo’s suspension for an incident with a fan at the end of his time in the Premier League and would not pick him for their next match, a top-of-the table encounter with Al-Shabab.
Instead, he said Ronaldo’s first Saudi appearance “will not be in a Al-Nassr jersey” but in a joint Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr team due to face Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain, and potentially Lionel Messi, in an exhibition game scheduled for January 19.
“As coach of Al-Nassr, I cannot be happy with this match,” said Garcia, a former manager of two of PSG’s great rivals Marseille and Lyon. “We have a league game three days later.”
Garcia said his first objective was to make Ronaldo happy.
“The only thing I wish for Ronaldo is that he finds the pleasure of playing and smiles again,” said Garcia.
“These last months between Manchester, the national team and then at the private level he has not had any easy moments. If he finds the pleasure of playing it will be a goal already achieved.”