DUBAI // Cristiano Ronaldo signed football shirts worn by pupils at the Dubai Autism Centre yesterday as crowds of fans pressed forward in an attempt to catch a glimpse of their idol.
Staff appeared to be taken by surprise by the numbers who turned up at the school for a visit by the Real Madrid and Portugal superstar.
Pupils - some holding signs saying "Welcome to DAC" and wearing shirts with Ronaldo written on the back - stood with their parents, brothers and sisters alongside employees, supporters of the centre and members of the public.
Ronaldo arrived at 2pm but remained in his car in the playground until space had been cleared. Then, surrounded by aides, he was ushered out of the vehicle and past the packed crowd into a small meeting room that had been set aside for a press conference.
Some of those invited to attend were prevented from entering and the press conference was abruptly cancelled - the second Ronaldo event in two days to have been called off. A planned appearance at Dubai Mall on Tuesday was also cancelled.
Most of those who had come to see the footballer were kept outside, though pupils and their families were allowed into the room, where they took turns to pose for photos with the star and obtain his autograph.
Ronaldo appeared tense and rarely smiled, and though he exchanged a few words with officials and families he made no attempt to address the hundreds who had turned out for him.
After 25 minutes the room was cleared and Ronaldo was whisked back outside and into his car, and moments later he was gone. Though some were disappointed after catching only a glimpse of the footballer, many said the event would have a positive effect by raising awareness.
"The visit wasn't very well organised, but it helps to raise the profile of autism," said Simon Margesson, 18 and from South Africa, whose 16-year-old brother Gavin attends the school. "With someone like Ronaldo maybe more people find out about it and, as a result, are more sympathetic to an autistic child should they see one out on the street.
"Because I was with my brother I managed to get in and get a photo taken with Ronaldo. For some of the kids who are big football fans it must have been huge, kids here are very excited and it will be the highlight of their day."
Two football nets had been set up in the playground, but hopes that the star would have a kickabout with the youngsters were dashed.
Katie Rogers, 18, from the UK, said: "I saw Ronaldo briefly, it was kind of hectic. I was pushed out to the back, but it was fine. I thought maybe he'd play football with the kids or give gifts to them, but he didn't. But I'm glad I saw him."
The centre has 46 students, aged between 3 and 18. The head of communications, Hayula Mourad, said: "Raising awareness is the most important thing about the visit. A lot of media have come, so a lot of people will be talking and hearing about autism, and that will make it less scary for the public."
Ronaldo is in Dubai to attend the Globe Soccer conference. Last night he was to attend a charity auction in the Burj Khalifa where shirts signed by him and other football greats went under the hammer. Ten per cent of the proceeds were earmarked for the centre, with 60 per cent going to Save The Children.
Soha Ellaithy, Save The Children's director of Gulf partnerships, said: "We are very pleased that Ronaldo is using his fame and the love that children have for him to promote such a good cause and to save children's lives around the world."
Football's most coveted trophies, including the World Cup and the Champions League cup, were on show at the event.