Anyone assuming Cristiano Ronaldo will have everything his own way in Saudi Arabia might be thinking again after what happened in the Super Cup semi-finals on Thursday.
Ronaldo was taunted by fans chanting “Messi! Messi! Messi!” as Al Nassr lost 3-1 to Al Ittihad at the King Fahd International Stadium. It was his second full match for the team — and his second match without a goal.
But at Al Nassr it will be seen as just a bump in the road; Ronaldo’s new club are heralding his arrival as transformational. They see it as a signing that goes beyond the country’s football borders, one that puts them on the map charting the global game.
The financial investment is certainly significant. Ronaldo’s salary of around £175million ($217.4m) a year makes him the best-paid player on the planet. According to sources close to Al Nassr, who wish to remain anonymous in order to protect their positions, the club will pay a tenth of that wage, with the rest covered by the Saudi state.
“It’s an opportunity to rub shoulders with one of the best players in the history of football. It’s a historic moment for our club, for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and for the whole region,” says a separate club source, who for the same reasons wished to remain anonymous. The Saudi Arabian Football Federation declined to comment on the matter.
Since his signing was made official on December 30, no one at Al Nassr has had any complaints about Ronaldo, 37, who is seen to be integrating well and trying to impress everyone at his new club. They point to his professional attitude and positive influence in the dressing room.
But what can Ronaldo expect from his new footballing home? And will more big-name players be following him soon?
The Athletic spoke with several figures within the Saudi game to find out.
Former Espanyol coach Vicente Moreno has been in charge of top-flight Saudi side Al Shabab since joining in July. With his team third in the standings, the Spaniard reflects on his memories of arriving in a new football environment. What struck him first might not surprise you. It was the heat.
“I’m curious to see how Ronaldo adapts,” Moreno says. “He will have to train in the afternoons. In August, it’s 50 degrees, so it’s impossible to train in the morning.
“That might not sound like an important change, but if you’ve had a particular training routine all your life, it can be hard to adjust.”
Because of the high temperatures, Saudi clubs generally don’t have more than one training session a day. And that means coaching teams have less control over their players as a result, according to Sergio Piernas, who was assistant coach of Saudi Arabia Under-23s in 2021.
“Training is in the afternoon, at around 3pm or even later in the warmer months — at something like 6pm or 7pm,” Piernas says.
“It affects the training dynamic, and there are fewer options for complementary training too.
“Clubs have improved their infrastructures and important decisions have been taken with the competitions, which are better organised. But players lack that culture of effort, of development, of realising it’s not only a case of training and that’s it, that there’s active rest, silent work, complementary training, diet.
“And there are barriers with communication — players don’t speak English, meaning the translator is very important, although this has improved.”
Ronaldo’s signing is intended to put Saudi Arabian football on the map (Photo: Fayez Nureldine / AFP) (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)
In terms of facilities, Real Madrid used Al Nassr’s training ground during the Spanish Supercopa held in Saudi Arabia, and they are of a high standard. Ronaldo was present for some of Madrid’s sessions there and used the opportunity to catch up with former team-mates.
Rejection, revenge and soft power: Inside Cristiano Ronaldo's move to Saudi Arabia's Al Nassr
Off the pitch, Moreno says Ronaldo is likely to live in one of Riyadh’s gated communities, which are home to many foreigners.
“There are some zones like mini-towns that are closed with barriers and security,” Moreno explains. “That’s where many foreigners live and they lead a more Western kind of lifestyle.
“Riyadh is very big. Here, the concept of a city is different to how we see it in Europe, in terms of streets, distances, space. It’s a city that is about three times the size of Madrid.”
Before matches, Al Nassr players meet at a five-star hotel in the city’s diplomatic quarter. In the first weeks since his arrival, Ronaldo has been housed in a luxury hotel, but the club are planning on supplying him with a large new home. On a recent trip, a Riyadh shopping centre was closed so that he could visit exclusively.
Piernas adds: “Here, with the impact Cristiano has had, he will have to live in a bubble.”
Al Nassr will most often use Ronaldo as a lone central striker. His new side are the league leaders with 33 points after 14 games, one point clear of rivals Al Hilal with a game in hand. Their season target is to win the title.
As The Athletic reported earlier this month, one sports intelligence agency ranked Al Nassr as of a comparable level to Luton Town and Sunderland in the Championship, while the Saudi Pro League was classed as the 58th highest-quality in the world — with an average standard between League One and League Two in England.
But Moreno says: “The level is better than we often think. Cristiano spoke about this in his presentation, that in the World Cup you could see it; Saudi Arabia were the only team to beat eventual winners Argentina.
“They didn’t make it out of the group stage, but I think they competed very well in all the games and showed what they can do. The level is good.”
Saudi Arabia’s two biggest clubs are Al Nassr and Al Hilal, which are “like Real Madrid and Barcelona”, says Piernas. Between them, the two sides accounted for 18 of Saudi Arabia’s 26-strong squad at the World Cup.
He adds: “Both clubs are in Riyadh, and Al Hilal have had a slightly bigger profile because they’ve contributed more to the national team and won the last Asian Champions League, so they are also going to the Club World Cup. Al Nassr is their main competitor.”
Al Nassr’s home ground holds around 25,000, with recent attendances reaching close to capacity. Tickets typically cost between £15-40. Far fewer female fans attend matches than in Europe — indeed, they were banned from doing so until 2018.
In recent weeks, there have been many players linked with Ronaldo’s new side. That long list includes Real Madrid forward Eden Hazard, who received an Al Nassr shirt from the team’s coach Rudi Garcia when in Riyadh for the Spanish Supercopa.
The gesture was interpreted as a way of approaching the 32-year-old but, in fact, there is a different explanation. Garcia has known Hazard since his early days at Lille, where they worked together for four years. There are no plans to sign him, and Hazard is not looking for the move either.
Some fans have been quick to jump to the conclusion that Al Nassr will look to build a ‘superteam’ around Ronaldo. According to club sources, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their positions, this is unlikely.
One such source put it like this: “Cristiano has been exceptional, but they are not going to set up the Harlem Globetrotters now. His mission is to develop the club. They have money, but they are not fools.”
Piernas believes the country’s rulers “supported Ronaldo’s signing” as part of their “very strong connection” with football, which they want to develop in order “to have greater visibility in the world”. He says that, in Saudi Arabia, such support is seen as “normal”.
Ronaldo’s Al Nassr debut came against a familiar old foe (Photo by Aurelien Meunier – PSG/PSG via Getty Images)
Saudi Arabia’s critics would say that Ronaldo’s signing is just another example of the kingdom’s sportswashing — using major sports stars and events to shift the focus away from their poor human rights record.
Amnesty International issued a statement via its Middle East researcher when Ronaldo’s move to Al Nassr was announced earlier this month. It pointed out that Saudi Arabia had put 81 people to death on a single day last year and drew attention to the state’s crackdown on freedom of expression, while urging Ronaldo to call out the country’s human rights problems.
Ronaldo’s signing has certainly attracted plenty of attention already.
His league debut came in a 1-0 home victory over Ettifaq on January 22, but it was on January 19 that he appeared for the first time in his new club’s colours, playing in a friendly with Paris Saint-Germain in which he faced Lionel Messi.
Interest in that match was huge. Al Nassr has also experienced a significant increase in its social media following: 12 million followers on Instagram, 4.5 million on Twitter and 600k on TikTok, according to data provided by the club.
And — in official matches at least — he hasn’t even found the net yet.
(Top photo: Mohammed Saad/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)