MARRAKECH – Cristiano Ronaldo has fallen under the charm of Morocco, and the feeling is mutual with the Portugal and Real Madrid star adored by millions of fans from the North African kingdom.
There may be no statue yet honouring Ronaldo, who led Portugal against Morocco in the World Cup on Wednesday, as there is in his hometown of Funchal, but he will soon have a hotel in his name.
Ronaldo's love affair with Morocco began in Marrakech in December 2014 at the Club World Cup which Real competed in after winning their 10th Champions League title.
For the first time Ronaldo experienced at first hand his popularity from a country where divided loyalties over Real Madrid and Barcelona can split families in two.
Ronaldo was “enchanted by “an exceptional quality of life that he hadn't come across before, and that was so close to where he lived too”, someone close to the player said.
'CR7' was hooked, and returned the following year, catching up with his Dutch-Moroccan friend, kickboxer Badr Hari.
According to the Spanish press, whenever he has free time Ronaldo takes a private jet from the Torrejon de Ardoz airport beside Real's training ground to return to the country he loves - and top up his perma-tan.
Even his beloved mum Dolores has fallen under Morocco's spell, judging by photos posted on Instagram of her in front of a plate of couscous, or visiting Jemaa El-Fnaa square in Marrakech where tourists can pick up replica shirts of her son.
Ronaldo has a 50-percent stake in the Portuguese hotel chain Pestana through his own 'CR7 brand, and he announced in January he would be opening his fifth hotel in Marrakech.
He already has branches in Funchal and Lisbon in Portugal - not surprisingly the rooms feature dozens of photographs of the player, his shirts and momentoes of his career.
However, only true fans will enjoy washing their face in the morning confronted by a giant view of the man himself with his sunglasses acting as mirrors.
Two more branches are soon to open in Madrid and New York.
The 160-room establishment in Marrakech is due to welcome its first guests by early 2020.
“He really does have a personal connection to the city,” Nabil Slitine, chief of the Downtown Hotel Corporation project where the CR7 hotel is due to be built, told AFP.
“From my first meeting with the Pestana group to explore the project they told me 'it's incredible, it's been six months now that Cristiano hasn't stopped telling us I'm going to open up in Marrakech'“.
Ronaldo's name brings with it a certain cache.
“I won't disguise the fact that it's good publicity for the venture, which has been marketed around the world,” he says.
Given his links with Ronaldo, Slitine could have a problem deciding who to support when Ronaldo's Portugal face Morocco in the World Cup later Wednesday.
“In business, I'm 100 percent for Cristiano but in the World Cup I'm 100 percent Moroccan.”
Portugal won the match 1-0 over Morocco.
Agence France-Presse (AFP)