We now know, more than 11 years ahead of time, who will be the hosts for the next three World Cups. After the US, Mexico and Canada have shared the hosting duties in 2026, and Spain, Portugal and Morocco have done it in 2030*, the tournament will be played out in Saudi Arabia in 2034. This is the latest wave to be made by the country in its bid to become a major player in the global soccer game – and pundits have been quick to ask whether this is part of the Ronaldo Effect.
*(Each of Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay will host one game in 2030 as part of centenary commemorations, but the official hosts are Spain, Portugal and Morocco)
A year ago, while many soccer fans were dimly aware of the existence of a Saudi Pro League, few really gave it any attention. Some, perhaps, would have cast an eye over it as research for the national team’s appearance at the Qatar World Cup. But the organizing committee for the 2034 competition is banking on the idea that by 2034, we’ll all be extremely familiar with players, stadia and teams from the Gulf state; and Ronaldo certainly has his part to play in that.
Depending on when the games are played in 2034, Ronaldo will either be 48 or 49 years of age, several years older than the oldest footballer ever to play in a World Cup (Egyptian goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary, who was 45 when he played in 2018). He won’t be playing at the Saudi World Cup, barring major advances in sports medicine or changes to nationality regulations. But he could certainly have a part to play in terms of an ambassadorial role between now and then.
He may, indeed, have a more involved role to play, dependent on whether he decides to take up coaching once his playing days are over. In 2019 he stated bluntly that he has no intention of doing so, but since then has hinted that he would like to get involved in coaching. The authorities in Saudi Arabia – who have specific financial interests in the Pro League – have exceptionally deep pockets, and if they want to persuade CR7 to take on such a role, will certainly have the means to persuade him. It wouldn’t be a big shock if he took on a backroom role at Al Nassr, and in 2034 was considered as a contender to lead the national team.
It’s not hard to argue against Ronaldo being shoehorned into a coaching role in advance of the World Cup being played in Saudi Arabia. Players with limited dugout experience have been handed international coaching roles in the past, with a mixed record in terms of success. Diego Maradona’s spell in charge of Argentina was unsurprisingly chaotic. Andriy Shevchenko coached Ukraine with much less distinction than he showed as a player. Hristo Stoichkov was unable to bring his magic as a player to his role as coach of Bulgaria, losing most of his games and causing three players to retire from international football just to avoid him.
So maybe Ronaldo’s role in the 2034 World Cup should be focused off the pitch. He’s by far the biggest name ever to get involved with Saudi soccer. He’s one of the biggest names in the history of the sport. It would make nothing but sense to get him involved with the publicity campaign for the competition, particularly since he’s played in five World Cups himself, something few players have ever managed. And he was clear when he arrived in Riyadh that he saw his role as including a raising of the profile of Saudi Arabian soccer – this is an ultimate opportunity to do just that.
Both before the confirmation of the 2034 host nation and since, much as been made of the boost that Ronaldo’s move to Al Nassr has delivered to Saudi soccer, with many arguing that it has raised the probability of the tournament being awarded to the nation. However, that’s not the whole story.
Saudi Arabia was one of two nations bidding to host the tournament, the other being Australia. Nations from South America, Europe and Africa were barred from hosting after the 2030 tournament was confirmed to be taking place across those three continents. And with the deadline for bids being the 31st of October 2023, and Australia pulling out just days before that deadline, there was in effect only one choice. It had to be the Saudi bid. Whether Australia’s decision to pull out was influenced by the Ronaldo factor – and the many other players that have joined the SPL since he arrived – is a matter of some speculation.
We may never know – but whether the Ronaldo Effect played a part or not, it’s sure to be influential from this point on.
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