‘He is absolutely loving Saudi, on and off the pitch,’ says Piers Morgan, as Tatler goes behind the scenes on Cristiano Ronaldo and Georgina Rodríguez’s glamorous social life in Riyadh

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Piers Morgan was not lying when he described the bombshell interview given to him by Cristiano Ronaldo on Talk TV last November as brutally honest. ‘I feel betrayed,’ Ronaldo griped about Manchester United, who he accused of trying to push him out, of failing to evolve since the Ferguson years and – in specific reference to the controversial Glazer family – of greed. There were gossipy lines, too. Gary Neville? NOT invited for dinner.

Clearly, Ronaldo’s second stint with the Red Devils fell apart. He was terminated; split from the superagent Jorge Mendes who, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo alleged this week, was given the final ultimatum ‘get me Chelsea or Bayern – or we break up’; and longtime friend Ricky Regufe brokered a deal more lucrative than any before with the Saudi Pro League team Al Nassr. Two years. £350m. You can buy more than a few Rollers for that; and his girlfriend Georgina Rodríguez got a head start, surprising him with a champagne convertible wrapped in a red bow for Christmas. 

Cristiano Ronaldo during an interview with Piers Morgan

The official announcement of his signing was made on 30 December and the critics were quick to caw. He’s gambling his legacy! He’s a sell out! Jamie Carragher, the pundit and former Premier League player, stuck the knife in, live on Sky Sports on the same day. ‘Ronaldo has finished his career during an interview with Piers Morgan and Messi has won the World Cup. It’s not the best way to go out.’ Ouch.

Piers does not agree. ‘Thanks to the fall-out from our interview, Ronaldo signed the biggest transfer deal in football history, and is now the world’s highest-paid athlete, at the age of 37,’ he told me this week. ‘He’s also doing what he’s done throughout his career, and which for me gives him the edge over Messi, and that’s challenge himself in a new country, and new league, at a time when football in the Middle East is really taking off, as we saw at the Qatar World Cup where Morocco reached the semi-finals and Saudi Arabia beat the eventual winners, Messi’s Argentina.’ 

Cristiano Ronaldo Georgina Rodríguez and Piers Morgan

‘He wanted freedom from Manchester United, where he rightly felt he had been badly disrespected by both the manager and senior club executives,’ Piers continued. ‘Ideally, I think he’d have preferred to play for another top club in the Champions League for a year or two, but Al Nassr made him a staggering offer, and I think the fresh challenge of raising the profile of football in a new region of the world, at the twilight of his incredible career, really appealed to him.’ 

As for Jamie Carragher? ‘He didn’t even get to finish his career with an interview with me – he wasn’t big enough,’ says Piers. 

Relocation, Relocation

A January relocation took place. Ronaldo was given a god’s welcome at Mrsool Park, his new home stadium, on 4 January. There were pyrotechnics and cheers from 25,000 strong. Although it didn’t go completely according to plan: he announced his pride at arriving to evolve football in… ‘South Africa.’ Jetlag? Riyadh socialites hardly seem to care. In the past week the couple and their five children have become the talk of the city. They moved into a suite at The Four Seasons Riyadh; Georgina made her Saudi social debut at the Joy Awards; and Ronaldo played his first Saudi Pro League game for Al Nassr. Al Nassr won, 1-0, against Ettifaq, although Ronaldo didn’t score. 

Is he happy? ‘Definitely,’ says Piers. ‘I’ve swapped a few texts with him, and he’s absolutely loving it, on and off the pitch.’ 

Socially, it seems, Ronaldo and Rodríguez already rule in Riyadh, which is so big you really have to drive to get around. There are so many millionaires that Range Rovers on these streets may as well be Toyotas, one insider tells me. Georgina travelled to last weekend’s match – crocodile Birkin, skyscraper stilettos, Ronaldo strip, fur coat and three-man glam squad in tow – in another Rolls Royce with blacked out curtain windows and a bespoke starlight headliner. 

Cristiano Ronaldo is Officially Unveiled as Al Nassr Player

‘People here are football mad,’ says one former expat who lived in Riyadh for a decade. When the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia wins a football match, he goes on, there is a lot of good-natured hooting of horns. ‘When I was taking an Uber, the Saudi driver would say, “Oh, you’re from England. Which football team do you support?” I’d have to say, “I’ve got to be honest, I don’t follow football.” And he would find that incomprehensible.’ 

There is one lone voice of caution: a senior sports executive in the region, who’s just stepped off a plane at Riyadh. ‘A lot of us [in the industry] are a little bit cynical about Ronaldo, because he said about six weeks beforehand, that if he wanted lots of money, he’d be playing in Saudi Arabia. And that wasn’t what motivated him.’ Nevertheless, Ronaldo is one of the biggest players of all time and ‘the way people follow football in the Middle East is they have favourite players and if their favourite player moves club, they start following that club.’ For the first time, the player has come to them. 

The Social Score

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Ronaldo’s landing in the Kingdom is huge – so big that he rendered one society DJ mute when he arrived at Miyazu, the upmarket Japanese restaurant where Lamborghinis, Ferraris and more Rollers park up. Two security guards surveyed the area before escorting Ronaldo, wearing what looked to be a Versace jacket, and his management team to an area of three or four tables. The security departed to wait outside and, spotting Ronaldo to his right, DJ Mad Gee almost fainted. 

‘I was literally in shock from the moment he came until he left,’ he tells me over Zoom, still in disbelief. ‘He stayed there for like two hours and I couldn’t even look at him. He was really nice though; he liked the music. He was dancing in his seat, raising his hands and waving the napkin around. He threw us a couple of smiles; that’s what broke the ice. When he was leaving, he looked at us in the DJ booth, then he smiled and came back and shook our hands: you know, a manly handshake and with a hug? I was very happy, and surprised how nice and humble he is. He said, “the music is amazing. I’m definitely coming back.”’

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It’s not all about CR7. Georgina, who masters publicity better than the WAGs of Baden-Baden, has a huge fan base in Saudi Arabia. ‘Even before she came here, she was an icon,’ says Gee. ‘And not only in Saudi; I’m talking about the whole Middle East. She’s always well dressed; she always looks great; and she’s the girlfriend of a living legend.’ The expat of 10 years agrees: ‘having a glamorous partner is a huge plus from a social perspective. There’ll be girls and women following her and, to be blunt, a lot of admiring guys as well thinking, “he’s a real star, but even more so because look at this wonderful, glamorous girlfriend he has.” They’ll get a lot of admiration for that.’

Georgina Rodríguez is fabulous in a Rolls Royce

‘We love her and welcome her! I hope she’s having a positive experience so far,’ says Viva, one of the first female DJs and music producers in the Kingdom. She’s keen to introduce Georgina to a new, public social scene: shopping at Centria Mall, where super-premium brands such as Louis Vuitton, Givenchy and Fendi lie in WAG wait; culture soaking at traditional markets; breakfast at Urth Caffe and dinner at Billionaire or Beefbar. To party? ‘She should party with me!’ says Viva.

The Glamorous Life

Riyadh is set up for luxury. Team Ronaldo is said to be occupying 17 suites at The Four Seasons, located in the 267-metre-tall Kingdom Centre. There, it’s all business coffees and executive dinners. The Newcastle United football team stayed in December. ‘It’s amazing, structurally,’ says Mad Gee. ‘It’s huge, like a city on its own, and it’s extremely fancy.’ Dinner, I am told, is like ‘heaven’. Though the sports exec quips back once more. ‘It’s very nice, but it’s nothing like the best four seasons in Dubai.’

The bill for this cohort of rooms is reported to be over £250k for one month. The family is said to be staying in the two-floor Kingdom Suite, with its gold and marble accents throughout the living room, private office, dining room and media room. The marble tub comes with a view onto Riyadh that is ideal for a post match bubble bath and social plotting. There are designer boutiques galore in the tower and nearby to service the WAG lifestyle: Gucci and Louis Vuitton are the biggest status symbols in this city.

The evidence that Georgina’s been having a blast is all over Instagram. Coverage of her social debut at the Joy Awards – an entertainment industry awards show – far outweighed that of Sofia Vergara, who was awarded Person of the Year. Georgina was the image of opulence, wearing a blue velvet bustier dress by Ali Karoui, a Tunisian designer; a diamond and yellow diamond jewellery suite from Kooheji, a jeweller that operates from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain; mirrored stilettoes from the Italian brand Le Silla; blue velvet gloves and a transparent veil – perhaps a nod to Middle Eastern culture. 

The Culture Conundrum

But how the couple and the Kingdom will deal with each others’ cultural differences is a serious question. Drinking alcohol’s off the table; it’ll be virgin mojitos from here on out – or a quick jet to party in Dubai. Cohabitation without marriage is prohibited; and yet they are unmarried and living together in The Four Seasons. Authorities are said to be turning a blind eye. ‘Instructions will have been quietly given in the background to the people who need to have them,’ says the expat. ‘They are probably just saying, “this guy is such a big deal for the country. And for the sake of national interest. if you just let him live his life the way he’s accustomed to living his life, you will not get into trouble.”’ It’s all about being wary of the red lines, he goes on. ‘As long as they behave in a certain way, and are not too outspoken then it’ll be great,’ he says. 

The Ronaldo-Rodríguez family probably won’t be an anomaly for long. ‘The Sports Minister has recently announced that there is a plan for each of the Pro League football clubs to have one international star introduced to each of their clubs,’ says the exec. Georgina might find herself at the centre of a new WAG hub, just as reports are circling that Netflix is discussing options for a Saudi edition of its reality show Dubai Bling. Saudi Bling? Bling Kingdom? Either way, Georgina might have exactly the star power they are looking for. 

Cristiano Ronaldo is announced as AlNassr's new forward

The timing seems fortuitous. Saudi Arabia is pouring money into live entertainment and sport right now. Almost every day, there is more news: 24 theme parks signed off; a new £200m entertainment complex. Pop ups are popping: Ronaldo went to Dariyah Nights, a shopping, art and music event, with Minister of Sports Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Faisal; the whole family went to Winter Wonderland. 

Public entertainment was until recently forbidden, and men and women were segregated in restaurants, but things are changing. Now, a career behind the decks exists for people like Mad Gee and Viva. ‘People are just so much happier now there’s music,’ he says. Meanwhile, Viva’s headlining MDL Beast music festival, which has just celebrated its second edition. ‘We’ve gone to a global level in a very short time frame,’ she says.

And yet, reports of human rights abuses continue to emerge. ‘Saudi authorities in 2021 carried out arbitrary arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents,’ says the Human Rights Watch. ‘Dozens of human rights defenders and activists continued to serve long prison sentences for criticising authorities or advocating political and rights reforms.’

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But when it comes to the accusation of ‘selling out’, Piers Morgan has a little bit more to say… ‘David Beckham “sold out” to American money when he was 32, Gary Lineker “sold out” to Japanese money when he was 32, and many other great players have done the same in other countries at far younger ages than Ronaldo. As for the whole sport-washing debate, let those without sin cast the first pure stones – I don’t think Britain’s in any position these days to morally lecture any other country on how to conduct itself.’

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