RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Cristiano Ronaldo wanted a Champions League swan song in the football cathedrals of Madrid, Milan or Munich, playing on the biggest stage with and against the most famous players in the game. Instead, the floodlights will fade on his glittering career at Mrsool Park, Al-Nassr’s compact stadium in the grounds of King Saud University, a mile up the road from Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Investment building.Thank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!
It is an incongruous setting, but when you consider the financial package Ronaldo has been offered to join Al-Nassr, the Ministry of Investment is perhaps an appropriate neighbour for his new club. The $75 million-a-year (£62m) contract Ronaldo has signed with Saudi Arabia’s second-biggest team — Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal, reigning Asian Champions League winners, are the Real Madrid in this part of the world — will certainly soften the blow of the 37-year-old’s diminished status that inevitably comes with his move to the Saudi Pro League, but surely it wasn’t meant to come to this.
When he made it clear he wanted to leave Manchester United in the summer, Ronaldo’s desire to move was driven by a determination to play in the Champions League. But there were no major European takers for his talents then and with United cancelling his contract during the World Cup, there have been none since. The lucrative contract offer from Al-Nassr, which has been on the table for almost two months, turned out to be the best, and only, option for one of the greatest footballers ever to have played the game.
His new teammates will include former Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina, Cameroon forward Vincent Aboubakar and Talisca, the Brazilian striker who leads the scoring charts in the Saudi Pro League with nine goals so far this season. Odion Ighalo, the former Manchester United forward, is one of three players in second place with six goals. Yet life in Saudi Arabia will be a whole new experience for Ronaldo, whose career so far has been based in the historic football cities of Lisbon, Manchester, Madrid and Turin.
Ronaldo will cause a stir in Saudi Arabia, a country with a well-resourced domestic league and national team, but he also risks being out of sight and out of mind following the switch.
Social life in Riyadh seems to revolve around shopping malls. While Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy and an authoritarian state that strictly forbids alcohol consumption and employs religious police to uphold its strict interpretation of Islam, the growing power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has seen the country tentatively open up to Western influences in recent years.
It is in the malls where the new Saudi Arabia shows itself — a world in which Ronaldo will soon be immersed. For those who expect Ronaldo to be living in a country that does things differently to those in Europe and North America, they will be in for a surprise. It’s the same, but a little different.
The View Mall in central Riyadh could be anywhere in London, New York or Los Angeles. The multiscreen cinema is showing “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” “Puss In Boots” and “Bed Rest,” and there’s a bowling alley adjacent to a gaming arcade. Families are eating dinner at Nando’s, buying cakes at Magnolia Bakery or watching football on the big screens while waiting to bowl at Bob’s Famous Eat, Bowl and Chill.
It is the same at the Kingdom Tower Mall across town, next to the Four Seasons Hotel, which could have been built for Ronaldo and his family. It is aimed at the rich (and famous) with Dior, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, Victoria’s Secret all having stores in the four-floor shopping centre.
Across the road, there is a Nike store. One footballer dominates the window with his huge image wrapped around the glass. He is a wearing a Manchester United shirt, but it isn’t Ronaldo: it’s Marcus Rashford.
Talk to Uber drivers, hotel staff or baristas in the coffee shops and they all know and love football. The majority claim to be supporters of Al Ittihad, the Jeddah-based team, and they all talk excitedly about Saudi Arabia’s recent World Cup showing in which they beat eventual champions Argentina 2-1. In terms of their favourite players, two stand out as being mentioned more than the others: Paul Pogba and Mohamed Salah. Nobody says Ronaldo or even Lionel Messi, who agreed a £25 million-a-year contract to become the face of the Saudi Arabia tourist board in May.
“Pogba and Salah are very popular, primarily because they are great players, but also because they are Muslim,” a source at Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Sport told ESPN. “They also endorse Pepsi, which is a big thing in Saudi because Pepsi dominates the market ahead of Coca-Cola. Both players are huge names in this country, but the leading Saudi players are also very popular.”
Life as a leading footballer in Saudi Arabia is a privileged one, though it’s not just Ronaldo who will be given the star treatment.
As part of their contracts with the Pro League teams, the top players earn salaries comparable to those in the major European leagues. While their bottom-line income will not be on a par with the highest earners in the Premier League or LaLiga, the overall packages are so comprehensive that it is a rarity for a Saudi Arabian player to seek a move to Europe. One source told ESPN that the leading Saudi players are “treated like rock stars” and given “huge houses in the best compounds [gated, security-patrolled luxury accommodations] and whatever cars they like.”
There is also no income tax for Saudi nationals, with a 20% flat rate on tax-adjusted profit for non-Saudis. In short, Ronaldo — and all foreign players in the Pro League — will lose far less of his earnings than he would in any European league.
Ronaldo can expect all of the perks reserved for the best players in Saudi Arabia. A luxury villa in the prestigious Al Muhammadiyah compound, the best schools for his children and a fleet of the best cars. But he will still have to negotiate negotiate the less enjoyable aspects of Riyadh city life — like traffic jams and smog — just like everybody else.
Mrsool Park (Mrsool is an app-based delivery platform) holds just 25,000 spectators when full. It is neat and tidy, with yellow and blue seats to match Al-Nassr’s colours, but it is tiny compared to Ronaldo’s previous home stadiums at Old Trafford or the Santiago Bernabeu.
There’s also no club shop at the stadium. If you want to buy an Al-Nassr Ronaldo shirt with his trademark No. 7 on the back, you will have to take an Uber ride to the club’s small outlet 30 minutes away.
The size of the stadium and lack of a club shop at the ground certainly underline the impression that Al-Nassr are not quite ready for the whirlwind of attention that Ronaldo will bring. Al-Ittihad are Saudi Arabia’s best-supported team, with an average attendance of 31,309 at their 62,000-capacity King Abdullah Sports City Stadium during the 2021-22 season. Reigning champions Al-Hilal averaged 13,192 fans-per-game at their 67,000-capacity King Fahd Stadium, while Al-Nassr could only muster an average crowd of 8,121 at Mrsool Park.
It has been a while since Cristiano Ronaldo last played a club game at a half-empty stadium, but he might have to get used to it in Saudi Arabia. His global fame will ensure an upsurge in interest in games, but it would be optimistic to expect full houses wherever he goes.
But while the Saudi Pro League is well-financed and backed by passionate fans — Al-Hilal’s ultras made plenty of noise during their recent friendly game against Newcastle in Riyadh — it will be a different challenge for Ronaldo. Ultimately, though, it is football and Ronaldo will not be able to expect an easy ride.
“Football in Saudi Arabia is real,” Ian Cathro, assistant manager at Al Ittihad, told ESPN. “When I came over here to work alongside Nuno Espirito Santo, after being on his staff at Wolves and Tottenham, one thing that struck me very quickly was how real it all is in the sense of it being competitive and passionate, just like everywhere else I have worked. The facilities are excellent, there is a genuine intensity here and the players are top quality, as we all saw with Saudi Arabia during the World Cup.
“There is also a real pride in that all of the best Saudi players still play in the domestic league. I’m sure that having Cristiano Ronaldo in the league will only make everything bigger and put Saudi Arabian football firmly on the map.”
Al-Nassr described the Ronaldo signing as “history in the making” when they announced the deal on Friday, adding that it would “inspire our nation and future generations of boys and girls to be the best version of themselves.” That is the legacy that Ronaldo will want to leave behind after his Saudi Arabian sojourn, but when Al-Nassr face Al-Tai at Mrsool Park on Jan. 5, it will all become very real for the five-time Ballon d’Or winner.
Ronaldo will end his career away from the spotlight and that, for a player who has craved every second of attention he has earned over the past two decades, will be a sad way for the curtain to come down.
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