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Cristiano Ronaldo takes a penalty kick during a Saudi Pro League football match between Al-Shabab and Al-Nassr at the Al-Shabab Club Stadium in Riyadh, on Feb. 25.FAYEZ NURELDINE/Getty Images

Cristiano Ronaldo has been in Saudi Arabia for a little over a year at this point. He leads the league in scoring. He makes about a million bucks a day. No one cares. That must bother him a little.

Famously, Saudi soccer fans don’t go to soccer games. A good crowd at a mid-tier match is 5,000 or 6,000. But they’ll show up if Ronaldo’s visiting. To try and drive him mad, mostly.

The go-to chant of opponents of Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr FC is “Messi,” drawn out like it has more than two syllables.

When a stadium is half empty you can hear more clearly in it, especially on the field. Ronaldo has repeatedly made the mistake of responding to “Messi” jeers. He often cups a hand to one ear or puts a finger to his lips.

Over the weekend, he got the same routine, but this time he’d heard enough. As the game ended, Ronaldo turned to fans of rival Al-Shabab and mimed tugging his unmentionables. It was a particularly lavish gesture, meant to be seen from a great distance.

In England or Spain or Italy, this is all in good fun. It’s the oil that greases the sports news cycle.

In a religious monarchy such as Saudi Arabia, it’s not quite as hilarious. The Saudi soccer league has opened an investigation.

This should be easy. Someone “investigates.” A fine is levied. The player makes a public apology.

Except that Ronaldo has shown repeatedly over his long career that he does not do apologies. He does explanations. The harder you push him to apologize, the less you’re going to like the way he explains it.

There is a small part of you that wonders if this is Ronaldo’s out. He picks a fight he knows his bosses can’t back away from and then leaves in a huff. He’s done it before.

If so, that would be the end of the short experiment to build a global elite sports league from whole cloth.

The best moments for the Saudi Pro League came during last summer’s transfer window. Ronaldo had already signed. Stories were out there saying Messi had seriously considered doing likewise, but had chosen the United States instead. Those two cleared the path for lesser lights to cash in with minimal blowback.

A raft of aging European and South American former superstars showed up looking for deals paying 10 times what they could earn elsewhere. There was talk of how the Saudi league was coming for England and Spain. This was the new world order, made plain through sport.

Then the players arrived. The heat was the first thing a lot of them mentioned. Then the facilities – which were not at the changing-room-at-Versailles level most were used to. And the amenities. What? No nightclubs? And that their families were knocked flat by culture shock. And that they had to fight rush-hour traffic.

“They do look after us, but not enough for my liking,” former Manchester City star Aymeric Laporte told a Spanish newspaper. It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder whether this is entirely the Saudis’ fault.

The emblematic disaster was Jordan Henderson. Formerly a popular captain at Liverpool, Henderson had crafted a brand as a deep thinker. Or, at least, deeper than most. He was well-known as a supporter of LGBTQ causes.

Heading to Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is illegal, did not endear Henderson to his old friends. The more he tried to explain, the worse it got.

In his first game in the Persian Gulf, Henderson had to come off early. The heat had beaten him down. Another part of his legend – indefatigability – had just gone out the window. It didn’t get better.

By Christmas, Henderson had surrendered. He’s in Amsterdam now, riding the bench for a fraction of the money. But at least he can have his picture taken without worrying it will reignite an international furor.

Others are frequently said to be looking for the same escape hatch. Laporte spoke of “many” players being “dissatisfied.” Few have convincingly hit back on those stories.

Perhaps the remainers are more resilient than Henderson, or more determined to get their money, or both. Because it can’t be love of their work. Even with an infusion of aging talent, the Saudi league is still bush.

Most soccer observers seem happy to see the Saudis get their comeuppance. News about small meltdowns in a nothing league are big news in Europe. Every time a player bails, a continent crows. But that victory – if that’s what this is – may be pyrrhic.

The Saudis focussed on their own league after it became clear that Gulf powers were becoming unwelcome in others. The Saudi sovereign wealth fund buying Newcastle United was a tipping point. The move to push Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich out of Chelsea may indirectly have been another.

But if you had money to burn, an overwhelming desire to be in sports and found that building from the ground up was too difficult, what would you do? You’d probably go back to buying existing properties.

What the Saudis have accomplished already is unsettling the economics of sport. Now that Ronaldo has broken the €200-million ($293-million) a year barrier, the next generation of global stars will expect to equal and surpass it. They won’t want to hear about sovereign wealth funds and market realities. They will want the best, the most, the greatest ever.

The only owners still able to pay those salaries are the Saudis (and Qataris and Emiratis, etc.). If Jon Rahm is over there getting US$600-million to play golf, then how come I’m not getting US$800-million to play basketball? You can see how this spirals.

It’s possible that the whole point of this was not to build a soccer empire in a desert, but to soften up more hospitable climates for eventual takeover.

If so, Ronaldo is no longer necessary to the project. He can take his €200-million and go home. It won’t be money wasted, but money invested in a larger, more disruptive project.

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