When a stadium in Saudi Arabia throbbed to Cristiano Ronaldo’s beat
Traffic snarls extended up to 2km from Mrsool Park as they came faces and hearts painted blue and yellow to watch a generational talent in his final swing.
They swung, swore, sang, and smiled. The 22,700-odd that filled the 25,000-seater Mrsool Park in King Saud University on a moonlit night, watched over by their crown prince from the royal box, were taken on a rollercoaster for the ages as Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr came back from a goal down to stun bottom-placed Al Batin 3-1 with three injury-time strikes in the Saudi Pro League.
By the time Mohammed Maran nailed the final goal in the 104th minute on Friday, the teeming arena had lost its voice. The Arabic pop blaring off the sound systems spoke of victory and ecstasy – you didn't have to know the language to understand that. The sea of Al Nassr's blue and yellow bounced as men and women in their distinctive white and black overalls waved and whistled.
Scarves were tossed, flags flung, selfies clicked. And when the mood hit them, boos and water bottles flew towards the Al Batin goal. An ultra-conservative kingdom letting go? Once in a while, sport can do that to you. Such moments lend character to concrete structures.
To be fair, the crowd had truly got its voice only in the 93rd minute when Luiz Gustavo's aerial pass beat Al Batin's defensive line as Abdulrahman Ghareeb slotted home the equaliser. Those exiting the stadium, anticipating a crushing humiliation at the hands of the bottom-placed team, rushed back to their seats.
The public address system blared the 25-year-old's first name, exhorting the spectators to shout back his second name. They obliged till throats ran dry. There was also a spirited impersonation of Víctor Hugo Morales' immortal "Goal!" chant.
"These are our ways to thank the club and the scorer," a fan exclaimed.
Nine minutes on (112'), Mohammed Al-Fatil made it 2-1 and the stadium exploded again. The mood had gone from dejection to delight, the beautiful game's dopamine-infused spell writ large on this throbbing Arabian night. Dancing in the isles is an expression made famous by the late cricket commentator Tony Greig. It wasn't a misfit on this dreamy evening.
The crowd, though, had not come to see all three goals being scored by its native players. They were here to watch a generational talent own the stage in his final swing. The most expensive footballer on the planet who lives out of the exclusive Kingdom Suite in the 267m Kingdom Tower in the heart of his adopted home; the one for whom the kingdom bent cohabitation rules. They had come for him, merrily lining up in traffic snarls that extended up to two kilometres from the stadium, their faces and hearts painted blue and yellow. They had come for the player who had, going into this Saudi Pro league tie, scored eight goals in six games.
Roars split the night sky each time Ronaldo touched the ball. Alas, the 'Siuu' chants, the flying headscarves, the hoarse voices, the incredible electricity combined could not elicit a proper finish from the €200m-a-season rockstar.
The closest Ronaldo came to scoring was in the 34th minute when he collected a long ball from Abdullah Madu, skipped past goalkeeper Martin Campana on the edge of the box but could direct a limp shot to the open goal, one which was cleared spectacularly on the line by a diving Abdullah Al-Yousif. The deafening hush that fell on the stadium was symptomatic of the Ronaldo cult.
"CR7 > Fifa. Fact," read a banner. While the jury may be out on that one, in Riyadh, they revel in the self-perpetuating Ronaldo myth. From king to God to royal guest, they address him as they please, having accepted him as one of their own. That explained the phenomenon of hordes turning up in Ronaldo T-shirts while none bothering to wear the likes of Alaqidi or Al-Sulaiheem, players born in this city.
The collective gasp that left the stands was astounding to begin with, but as the five-time Ballon d'Or winner regularly fired headers over the crossbar, it gave way for exasperation. They lived his fumbles and frustration, and when he angrily kicked the sidebar after yet another freekick went awry, they cried for retribution. Mrsool Park danced to Ronaldo's beats, even on a night when the footballing demigod was humanised by an enterprising opposition.
Not all were as amused though. Musab, a Sudanese taxi driver who has made the Saudi capital his home, flashed five, indicating the number of half chances Ronaldo had missed. "I don't like him. He didn't do good with Manchester United," he would say. That kind of a night.