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It was one of those rare days when nothing comes off for Cristiano Ronaldo and he cannot conceal his rising frustration.
An offside flag denied him a goal and a VAR intervention denied him a penalty before he sent a wild shot and two headers off target in the closing stages of a crucial game. At one stage, he wrestled an opponent to the ground and was perhaps lucky to avoid a red card. As the game slipped away, he kept grimacing, looking to the heavens in disgust, as if to ask what he had done to deserve this.
It was another blow for Al Nassr’s Saudi Pro League title hopes and, walking off the pitch at the final whistle, Ronaldo heard mocking chants from the jubilant Al Hilal supporters. “Messi, Messi,” they shouted, trying to taunt him with the name of his great rival.
Grinning, he twice grabbed his crotch in what looked like a pointed response to his hecklers before disappearing down the tunnel.
The incident attracted widespread media coverage, not least in Saudi Arabia during the holy month of Ramadan. A Saudi lawyer, Nouf bin Ahmed, described Ronaldo’s gesture as “a crime of public dishonour and (…) one of the crimes that entails arrest and deportation if committed by a foreigner”, adding that she intended to file a complaint to the Saudi public prosecutor.
For this particular foreigner, there was no danger of deportation. Al Nassr responded by issuing a statement saying Ronaldo was in fact suffering from an injury because a tussle with Al Hilal midfielder Gustavo Cuellar had started with a blow in a very sensitive area.
“This is confirmed information,” the club added — and that was the end of the matter.
But that incident last April was part of a difficult period early in Ronaldo’s first year in Saudi Arabia. A week later, Al Nassr suffered a shock defeat to Al Wehda in the semi-final of the King Cup of Champions, leaving Ronaldo to vent his displeasure at his team’s coaching staff as he left the pitch.
In a column for Arabic-language newspaper Al Madinah, Dr Saud Kateb, a former minister at the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asked whether the government-backed acquisition of Ronaldo might have been “a losing bet”. He suggested that “excessively focusing on attracting the most famous and the biggest” was a “double-edged sword” because there was a downside to the global exposure that Ronaldo and other superstars bring with them.
“I think that it would be better to attract more useful players,” Kateb said, “whose excessive fame does not constitute an unnecessary burden for their clubs and the league as a whole.”
A year on from Ronaldo’s extraordinary move, that is not a view shared by Saudi Arabia’s modern ruling class.
Whatever “burden” Ronaldo might carry is far outweighed by the profile and glamour he brings not just to Al Nassr and the league, which has been transformed over the past 12 months, but to the kingdom: visiting historic sites, opening a “CR7 Signature Museum” at the futuristic Boulevard World, wearing traditional Saudi dress to commemorate national holidays and signing up to promote numerous events, usually in the company of Turki Al-Sheikh, chairman of Saudi Arabia’s general authority for entertainment and one of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s most trusted advisers.
Today (Saturday, December 30) marks the anniversary of the moment Ronaldo put pen to paper for Al Nassr, signing a two-and-a-half-year deal worth up to £173million ($210m) a year. Al Nassr called it “history in the making”, a deal that “will not only inspire our club to achieve even greater success but inspire our league, our children, our nation and future generations, boys and girls to be the best version of themselves”.
No pressure, Cristiano.
Rejection, revenge and soft power: Inside Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr
Pressure? By the start of February, Ronaldo would have been forgiven for feeling it.
His Saudi Pro League debut had initially been delayed by a two-match suspension dating back to his final months at Manchester United. He scored twice for a Riyadh all-star team in an exhibition match against Paris Saint-Germain and Messi, but he drew a blank on his Saudi Pro League debut against Al Ettifaq (four shots, no goals) and again four days later as Al Nassr lost to Al Ittihad in the Saudi Super Cup semi-final four days later.
Next up was a game away to Al Fateh. Again nothing was coming off for Ronaldo: a goal disallowed for offside, a wayward first-time shot, another one rattled against the crossbar, an over-ambitious 35-yard free kick that went straight into the wall, another 90 minutes without a goal.
And then, in stoppage time, a gift: a penalty kick for Al Nassr following a crass challenge on his team-mate Jaloliddin Masharipov. Brazilian midfielder Anderson Talisca stood on the penalty spot, holding the ball, but he knew to hand it over when his more celebrated colleague stepped up behind him. Everyone knows to defer to Ronaldo.
A buzz went around the Prince Abdullah bin Jalawi Stadium. Young boys were hoisted upwards by their fathers, eager for them to share in their moment in history. Ronaldo briefly closed his eyes and exhaled in the manner of an action-movie hero who knows he has one chance to save the world.
He did it. He saved the world. Well, he saved a point against Al Fateh. The 17,631 crowd — by far Al Fateh’s biggest attendance since their title-winning campaign a decade earlier — rose to acclaim a goal by an opposition player. Some of them called for him to perform his famous “Siiiiiiuuuu” celebration, but Ronaldo was already racing back to the halfway line, hoping there was still time for a winner. (There wasn’t.)
In many ways, that game against Al Fateh last February summed up Ronaldo’s Saudi experience to date: a lot of attempts, at least one goal, a crowd desperate to see him play the hits (the stepovers, the flicks, the powerful long-range shots, the towering headers and, of course, the celebration) and an athlete in the twilight of his career determined to give them what they want, but above all, determined to get what he wants: even more goals, even more wins, even more trophies, even more glory.
Towards the end of his first year in Saudi Arabia, Ronaldo submitted to a lie detector test as part of a marketing campaign for a cryptocurrency venture he was promoting.
A cryptocurrency venture? That is a whole other story, and not a pretty one, but the lie detector test was a nice gimmick. It suggested he was totally convinced of his greatness — quite right, too — but not when he said he believed Portugal would win the World Cup.
Then came the question of whether, at the age of 38, Ronaldo thought he would still be “playing at the highest level” in his 40s. He dwelt on this one, closing his eyes, before delivering the answer: “Yes”.
This time, the polygraph reflected little or no change in Ronaldo’s body response, suggesting he was telling the truth. Ronaldo smiled, looking relieved, as if reassured by the feedback.
The obvious thing to say here is that the test — or the premise of the advert — was flawed because, quite clearly, a player in the Saudi Pro League cannot claim to be operating at the highest level of the sport.
But the point of a polygraph is not to establish truth or falsehood. It is to try to identify the physiological changes — rises in blood pressure, pulse, respiration, skin conductivity — associated with deceit.
And everything Ronaldo does, on and off the pitch, is consistent with the belief he is still at the very top of the game.
With one game remaining, away to Al Taawoun on Saturday, Ronaldo has scored 53 goals in 2023, one more than Kylian Mbappe and Harry Kane and his highest total in a calendar year since 2017 when he was at Real Madrid. Ten of those goals have come in nine appearances for Portugal and 43 of them in 49 matches for Al Nassr, including 19 goals in 17 league games so far this season.
The latest of them came away to Saudi champions Al Ittihad on Tuesday. Needing to win to keep the pressure on league leaders Al Hilal, his team fell behind before Ronaldo held his nerve to equalise from the penalty spot in the first half. A second Ronaldo penalty midway through the second half put Al Nassr 3-2 up and, eventually, they ran out 5-2 winners. “We’re not stopping!” he said on Instagram afterwards.
Those 19 goals put him clear at the top of the Saudi Pro League scoring charts, two ahead of Al Hilal’s former Fulham forward Aleksandar Mitrovic. He also ranks highest for assists (nine). In terms of goal contributions (goals plus assists), he is on 28 for the season, seven ahead of second-placed Mitrovic.
It adds up to 1.65 goal contributions per 90 minutes — or, to put it another way, a goal or assist just over every 54 minutes — and it strengthens the view that Ronaldo is inspiring his team to new heights, even if the reality is not quite as straightforward as that appealing narrative suggests.
Al Nassr were top of the Saudi Pro League when Ronaldo signed for them last December. They were still top, two points clear of Al Hilal and Al Ittihad, when he made his debut more than three weeks later.
After that stuttering start, the goals soon flowed for the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, but then came a game against Al Batin, the league’s whipping boys, when Al Nassr trailed 1-0 until a dramatic turnaround in stoppage time. Ronaldo didn’t score in that game. He had seven shots, just one of them on target.
A week later came what was effectively the title-decider against Al Ittihad. Al Nassr went into that game top of the table, but they were beaten 1-0 and were overtaken. Again hearing chants of “Messi, Messi” from the home crowd, he stormed off the pitch at the final whistle, kicking water bottles as he went.
Then came that chastening defeat by local rivals Al Hilal: the one with the headlock, the offside goal and the crotch-grabbing gesture. By the end of the season, he had scored 14 goals in 16 Saudi Pro League appearances, but those goals (four against Al Wehda, three against Damac, two against Al Adalah) came largely against the league’s struggling teams. He racked up eight or nine goal attempts in some of those games. In two different matches, damaging 1-1 draws at home to Al Khaleej and away to Al Ettifaq, he took eight shots without scoring.
They ended up finishing five points adrift of Al Ittihad having performed better without Ronaldo in the team (33 points from 14 games) than with him (34 points from 16 games). Their top scorer was Brazilian midfielder Anderson Talisca, but 13 of his 20 goals had come when his more celebrated team-mate was not playing.
It has become a familiar question in the later years of Ronaldo’s career: whether there is a price to be paid, in terms of fluency and cohesion, for trying to play to his strengths.
But after his miserable final months in Manchester, there have no been questions or criticisms about his attitude or application in Riyadh. On the contrary, his influence on the team is said to have been entirely positive.
“Cristiano has responded very positively since day one,” Al Nassr sporting director Marcelo Salazar tells The Athletic. “Not only him but his family and his staff as well. And this is a very important factor in his good performance inside the field since his debut with us. Check the number of goals and assists he has made since his arrival. It’s huge. Check out the game against Al Wehda last season when he scored a ‘poker’ (four goals) and we won 4-0.
“When he came, we already had very good professionals like Luiz Gustavo, David Ospina and Alvaro Gonzalez, who are role models, but nothing can be compared with the impact that comes with Cristiano’s absolute commitment and care about every detail that has an impact on his performance — and the impact that causes in a changing room. He puts the bar very high and this causes a cascade effect.”
That has been more apparent since Ronaldo was joined by highly experienced players like Aymeric Laporte, Marcelo Brozovic, Sadio Mane and Portugal midfielder Otavio and since Rudi Garcia was replaced as head coach by the experienced Luis Castro, a long-time Ronaldophile. “(Ronaldo’s) relationship with Luis Castro is the best possible,” Salazar says. “Honest, close, direct and professional.”
But, like last season, Al Nassr have been left trailing. This time it is Al Hilal, reinforced by the summer arrivals of Yassine Bounou from Sevilla, Kalidou Koulibaly from Chelsea, Ruben Neves from Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic from Lazio, Malcom from Zenit and Mitrovic from Fulham as well as coach Jorge Jesus.
Mitrovic’s strike rate (17 in 16 Saudi Pro League matches) has been metronomic, scoring in almost every game. Ronaldo’s has been a little more fitful. In no fewer than 10 of his 17 league appearances this season (against Al Fateh, Al Hazem, Al Raed, Al Tai, Abha, Damac, Al Fayha, Al Okhdood and Al Riyadh) he has had at least six goal attempts. In three of those games he took at least 10 shots; against Al Tai he made it 11th time lucky from the penalty spot with three minutes remaining.
Last season, the title was effectively decided by results in the games between the big two or three teams: in Al Nassr’s case the defeats by Al Ittihad and Al Hilal when Ronaldo could not find the net. A 3-0 defeat by Al Hilal on December 1 continued that unhappy trend. A 5-2 victory away to Al Ittihad, featuring two Ronaldo goals from the penalty spot, was a significant step in the right direction.
When Ronaldo stroked home each of his two penalty kicks on Tuesday, he embarked on a now-familiar celebration, running towards the corner flag, pointing to himself, slowing down to a trot and leaping into the air and making a “spin” gesture with his hand as he pirouettes mid-flight and then flings his arms down and outwards as he lands, shouting “Siiiiiiuuuu”.
How Ronaldo made iconic ‘SIU!’ celebration his personal calling card
The crowd shouted it with him, which is normal enough until you consider that this was a home game for Al Ittihad, one of Al Nassr’s fiercest rivals.
There is a desperation to see Ronaldo play — and not only in Riyadh. Six of the nine away games he played in the Saudi Pro League last season attracted the home team’s biggest attendance of the campaign. One of Al Nassr’s away games this season, against Al Fayha, was attended by just 5,400 spectators, but Al Fayha have frequently played in front of three-figure crowds. Many clubs move home games against the bigger clubs, such as Al Nassr, to bigger stadiums to try to meet demand.
Al Nassr’s results have not necessarily improved since Ronaldo’s arrival, but their attendances have. In the opening months of last season, they frequently drew crowds below 15,000. This season their average league attendance is 20,308.
But even with Al Awwal Park holding just 25,000 spectators, there are still tickets available for most Al Nassr home games. A few days before their home game against Al Ettifaq, their last game before the winter break, tickets were available from SAR 35 (£7.30) behind the goal to SAR 650 (£135) for the sports lounge and SAR 1500 (£313) for the most expensive lounge. They are still selling half-season tickets to cover the final eight games of the campaign, ranging from SAR 4020 (£837.58) for the sports lounge to SAR 17258 (£3,595.77) for the membership lounge.
More than in the stadiums, the real difference Al Nassr has felt — which has extended to the league as a whole — is via Ronaldo’s vast fanbase on social media.
On December 29 last year, the day before the deal was announced, Al Nassr had just over 823,000 followers on their main official Instagram account. Within four days, that had risen to 7.8 million. A year on, it is 22.4 million. To put that in context, it is more than all but five clubs in the Premier League — and almost as many as Tottenham Hotspur (16.5 million), Aston Villa (3.7 million) and Newcastle United (2.6 million) combined.
It is also considerably more than Al Hilal (10.1 million) and Al Ittihad (4.1 million). Those clubs have enjoyed huge surges in social-media following over the past 12 months but, while this can be indirectly linked to Ronaldo’s arrival in the league, Al Hilal’s big jump (from 4.5 million to 8.7 million) came in August after the signings of Bounou, Mitrovic and particularly Neymar. Al Ittihad jumped from 1.5 million to 3 million in June as they agreed deals to sign Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and others.
As for the league, although it has always attracted passionate interest within the region, the market for its global media rights pre-Ronaldo was almost non-existent, but now the league claims to have international broadcast with 38 broadcasters across 140 territories. It also expects to become the world’s third most profitable football league in terms of sponsorship revenue — and while that is down to more than just one new arrival, it can all be attributed to the “Ronaldo effect” which helped persuade so many other big names to follow the path to Saudi Arabia.
When Ronaldo signed for Al Nassr, Amnesty International issued a statement urging arguably the world’s most famous athlete to use his platform to highlight Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record.
“Cristiano Ronaldo shouldn’t allow his fame and celebrity status to become a tool of Saudi sportswashing,” the charity’s Middle East researcher, Dana Ahmed, said. “He should use his time at Al Nassr to speak out about the myriad human rights issues in the country.”
Ronaldo, like so many other high-profile athletes and figures from the entertainment industry, has done nothing of the sort. Visit Saudi, the tourist board, is among the government entities helping finance his enormous contract and so, like Messi, Ronaldo has been photographed visiting tourist attractions, most recently the oasis city of AlUla where he declared himself “amazed by the extraordinary human and natural heritage … where ancient history meets a modern (heart emoji) story”.
As for the idea that Ronaldo might take the Saudi leaders to task over their human rights record, he took to Instagram in October to say it was an “honour to meet again with his Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman and great to be part of this panel today discussing the future of esports and the launch of the first-ever #esportsworldcup that will be held in Saudi Arabia next year”.
While much was made of Ronaldo’s awkward ringside encounter with Irish mixed martial arts star Conor McGregor at last week’s “Day of Reckoning” boxing event in Riyadh, not too many people outside of Saudi Arabia paid much attention to the figure on the other side of Ronaldo: MBS’s trusted adviser, Turki Al Sheikh.
Some of those players moving to Saudi Arabia, such as former Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson, have talked — rather naively, as it has turned out — about trying to bring “change” in the kingdom, particularly where the oppression of LGBTQ+ rights is concerned.
Jordan Henderson: I strongly believe that me playing in Saudi Arabia is a positive thing
Ronaldo made no such pledge. He has been effusive about the hospitality extended to him and his family. On the kingdom’s founding day and national day he, like many other of the league’s high-profile imports, wore traditional Saudi dress and performed the Ardah dance. Ronaldo took it further by incorporating the dance into a goal celebration.
From the moment he arrived, spending the first weeks with his family in the vast, opulent kingdom suite at the Four Seasons hotel, Ronaldo has enjoyed life in Riyadh. He is far more positive about his life experience than he was in Manchester.
Even during his first spell at United, never mind his frustrating second spell, Ronaldo used to hate the Manchester weather. Manchester has, on average, 45 hours of sunshine in December and 50 hours in January. Riyadh has more than 200.
Manchester is an industrial English city which has evolved over centuries and has all the quirks associated with that. Riyadh, too, has existed for centuries, but it has been revolutionised by the extreme financial investment of recent years. Its restaurants, hotels, entertainment complexes and shopping malls are geared towards a VIP crowd in a way big European cities, generally, are not.
Ronaldo says Riyadh has “some of the best-quality restaurants I have come across”. He and his partner, Georgina Rodriguez, have been seen at Le Maschou (French), Lavash (Armenian) and Clap Riyadh (Japanese), as well as Patel Riyadh (Spanish), in which he is one of the investors.
He has visited Boulevard World with his family and described it as “very beautiful”. Naturally, he enjoyed his trip to the CR7 Signature Museum. He has praised the standard of his children’s schooling in Riyadh.
His enthusiasm for Saudi life appears entirely genuine. Life in Riyadh would not be to everyone’s taste — and that is before we get to the restrictions still faced by women and members of the LGBTQ+ community — but Ronaldo and Rodriguez are able to live the A-list lifestyle they could never really enjoy in Manchester.
They have even been granted the freedom to live together unmarried, a right not extended to Saudi couples. Ronaldo is unlikely to spend much time worrying about human rights. He has everything he wants in Riyadh. Well, almost everything.
When Ronaldo talks about “still performing at the highest level”, he is referring to his own standard rather than Al Nassr’s or the league’s. In body, he is still the same supreme physical specimen. In his mind, he is still the same insatiable, supremely driven, ultra-professional athlete.
Europe’s top clubs were not exactly queueing up to sign him last winter after his acrimonious departure from Manchester United, but Ronaldo is not the type to waste time thinking about that. When asked why he had moved to a league that European players have previously regarded (if at all) as a graveyard, he said he was in Saudi Arabia because “in Europe my work is done” and “this is a new challenge”.
The standard wasn’t what he was used to. If he was critical of the training facilities and the professionalism of his team-mates at Manchester United second time around, he has had to make allowances for some aspects of life at Al Nassr. Salazar spoke about how Ronaldo had “put the bar very high” in terms of professional standards, but he has had to do so in a gentler, more compromising, more inclusive manner than he did in his second spell in Manchester.
Ronaldo has never tried to claim the Saudi Pro League is equal to the leading European leagues. From an early stage, he said he expects it gradually to become one of the top five leagues in football, but “step by step”. “They need time, players and infrastructure,” he told Saudi TV station SSC at the end of last season, which again is not an allowance he was willing to make for Manchester United after years of stagnation under the Glazers’ ownership.
More top-class players arrived in the summer: Neymar, Mane, Benzema, Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino and so many more. But the majority of the high-profile arrivals were those at the tail-end of their careers. Younger ones like Otavio, Ruben Neves, Seko Fofana and Gabri Veiga are in the minority. Al Ittihad, last season’s champions, fielded one XI with an average age of 32 years and four months.
It makes for a slightly disjointed viewing experience. Competitive balance is an issue in almost all leading leagues these days, but in Saudi Arabia, there is a huge gulf in quality not just between teams but, in certain cases, within teams. That is inevitable when a league has placed so much emphasis on attracting A-list talent in the hope of achieving rapid growth.
Similar was said of Major League Soccer at one time; less so now after years of more organic growth. And with Messi moving to Inter Miami, Ronaldo did not hesitate to state in the summer that “the Saudi league is better than MLS”, adding that it will also “overtake the Turkish league and Dutch league” within a year.
It could well do given the wealth and ambitions behind the government-backed project. If Ronaldo and so many other big-name players can be lured to Saudi Arabia, some of them with far more years ahead of them in their careers, then the European game’s hegemony could in time come under serious threat.
Might that even become a worry for Ronaldo? He is already seeing his position as the league’s outstanding goalscorer challenged by Mitrovic. If it is to be expected that Ronaldo will slow down given he will turn 39 in February, what happens if the standard of the league grows around him, coming up against better, fitter, more experienced, more organised opponents every week?
That has already happened to an extent with this year’s influx and, for now, Ronaldo is still setting the standard — leading the charts for assists as well as goals. There were moments against Al Ittihad when it looked like a Ronaldo masterclass, featuring the explosiveness and audacity of old, but it still took two penalty kicks to get him on the scoresheet, whereas other games, against the league’s lesser lights, can sometimes look like shooting practice for the Portugal captain.
Catching Al Hilal in the title race looks like a daunting task for Al Nassr after their slow start to the campaign, but they have already won the Arab Club Champions Cup and Salazar points out they are still in contention for the King Cup, the Super Cup and the Asian Champions League, in which they will face another Saudi team, Al Fayha, in the last 16.
“We can achieve (victory in) all the competitions we are involved in,” Salazar says. “Nothing is impossible. That is the ultimate goal that drives our daily work in Al Nassr FC.”
It is Ronaldo, five weeks from his 39th birthday, who is behind that — driving interest, driving up attendances, driving his team forward (even if, yes, it is legitimate to say they were top of the table when he signed a year ago) and, above all, driving himself to enhance his extraordinary legacy.
The Saudi Pro League is not the challenge he envisaged when, on the eve of last winter’s World Cup, he suggested he still felt his future would be in European football. But with his options reduced, he embraced it and, a year on, it looks like it was the challenge he needed — almost as much, you might say, as Saudi Arabia needed him.
(Top photo: Abdullah Mahdi/AFP via Getty Images)