Five months after he shocked the football world by signing for Al Nassr, Cristiano Ronaldo’s first season in Saudi Arabia is set to end with mixed results.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner is not going to add to the seven league titles won in England, Spain and Italy as his Riyadh-based club will finish second behind newly-crowned champions Al Ittihad ahead of the last match of the season on Wednesday. Al Nassr were also dumped out of the Saudi Cup in the semifinals.
But Ronaldo’s numbers on the pitch remain impressive; he has scored 14 goals in 16 league games in Saudi Arabia so far. Al Nassr may have struggled to match the consistency and defensive prowess of Al Ittihad, but they have qualified for the next edition of the Asian Champions League.
“In some matches, he stood out; in others, he didn’t, but we all know what he can do,” said Roel Coumans, head coach of Saudi Professional League club Abha, who lost 2-1 to Al Nassr in March with Ronaldo scoring the equalising goal.
“Al Nassr have some very good players who can help and he needs support but there is no doubt that he raises the level of the team.”
There has been some upheaval during Ronaldo’s time at Al Nassr. In April, coach Rudi Garcia left the club amid reports that Ronaldo was unhappy with the French coach’s methods and tactics. There is no doubt that Ronaldo has played an important part in leading the team. If he misses a chance or loses possession, his anger with himself is clear for all to see – as are the demands and expectations he has from his teammates.
“Not enough attention is paid to his teammates and how he has changed the [competitive] mentality of the dressing room and the club,” said former Singapore international Sasi Kumar, now CEO of Madrid-based sports marketing company D+1. “I would love to be his teammate and see how a world champion behaves and prepares.”
Behind the scenes, Saudi football officials hope that the league will not only become the clear number one in Asia but also one of the best in the world. Ronaldo has, more than once, said it openly.
“The Saudi league is getting better, next year will be even better,” he said, after scoring a spectacular winning goal against Al Shabab on May 23.
“Step by step, I think, this league will be in the top five leagues in the world but they need time, they need players, they need infrastructure. But I believe this country has amazing potential. They have amazing people and the league will be great in my opinion.”
Coumans believes that is a tall order but sees a league heading in the right direction.
“It’s difficult to imagine [top 5] happening but it is a nice ambition,” he said. “When you look from the perspective of that goal, then you need this kind of exposure. The arrival of top-class foreign players will make a difference. The standard is definitely improving.”
Ronaldo’s presence also means that reports of Lionel Messi heading to Riyadh rivals Al Hilal are taken seriously and, regardless of whether the Argentinian great does head to Saudi Arabia, a number of top-class imports are expected to arrive this summer.
“It all starts with one person,” said Kumar. “Get a high-profile star and the next guy starts thinking, ‘If Ronaldo can go there, then it is good enough for me.’”
Coumans is concerned, however, that despite the rise in standards, there are possible negative consequences for Saudi players as the number of foreign players that can take the field increases from seven to eight next season.
“If you want to be in the top five then you need these kind of stars but you also have to look at the development of Saudi football,” he said. “The young players will learn from the big stars but if they are not playing every week then they can’t develop as they wish.”
‘Kids want to play like Ronaldo’
It is off the pitch, however, where Ronaldo has made the most noticeable impact. Al Nassr immediately became one of the most talked about clubs in the world.
“In Spain, I now see a lot of kids wearing Al Nassr Ronaldo kits and that’s a testament to the business success,” said Kumar.
The club’s Instagram followers jumped to almost 15 million from about 860,000 following his move.
“It’s raised their profile beyond their wildest dreams,” said Pat Janssen, CEO of Al Shabab from 2017 to 2018. “TV rights for his matches alone are a commercial success.”
It has been reported that league games have been sold to 36 international broadcasters.
Ronaldo’s presence is not just about football. As Saudi Arabia seeks to position itself as a major sporting hub and diversify an economy historically reliant on oil, it is increasingly hosting sporting events such as Formula One, golf tournaments, and boxing and wrestling matches.
Having Ronaldo – the most followed person on Instagram, with more than 560 million followers – makes a difference to the country’s sports branding.
“To get eyeballs, you get the biggest athlete in the world to go and live there and they knew exactly who to go after,” said Kumar. “It is a well-thought-out and planned strategy to market itself to the world. We live in a society where influencers shape our thinking and he is the ultimate influencer.”
According to some media reports, Ronaldo is unhappy at Al Nassr and has struggled to adapt to Saudi culture and the language barrier. Messi’s name has been chanted at him by Saudi fans.
On social media at least, Ronaldo gives the impression of enjoying life in the country with his family and has been photographed as a tourist and wearing traditional Saudi clothing.
His children playing a visible part in his time in Saudi Arabia may be no accident. With growing rates of obesity in the country – a recent study reported a 35 percent obesity rate compared with the global average of 13 percent – there has been a push to encourage society to be more active.
“He is a sports model with his children to follow in terms of maintaining [a] healthy, nutritional and sports lifestyle,” said Ayman al-Hatami, an Al Hilal fan.
Saudi football officials believe that the next generation of boys and girls will take up the sport.
“No question he will inspire the youngsters,” said Janssen. “The connection he has with young people is aspirational. Kids want to play like Ronaldo.”