Why did Cristiano Ronaldo join Saudi Arabia?

Cristiano Ronaldo has taken the Champions League swansong in the football cathedrals of Madrid, Milan or Munich, playing on the biggest stage with and against football’s most famous players, as the spotlights turn off on his illustrious career at Msool Park, Al-Nassr’s compact stadium located on the grounds of King Saud University, one kilometer from the Saudi Ministry of Investment building.

It’s an incongruous setting, but considering the financial package offered to Ronaldo to join Al-Nassr, the investment ministry could be a suitable neighbor for his new club. The $75 million deal Ronaldo has signed with Saudi Arabia’s second-biggest team – Asian Champions League-winners Riyadh’s rivals Al-Hilal are part of global Real Madrid – will surely soften the 37-year-old’s blow . diminished status that inevitably accompanies his move to the Saudi Pro League.

When he announced his intention to leave Manchester United this summer, Ronaldo’s desire was driven by his determination to play in the Champions League. But then there was no European squad for his talents and, with Manchester United canceling his contract during the World Cup, there hasn’t been one since. Al-Nassr’s lucrative contract offer, which had been on the table for nearly two months, turned out to be the best and only option for one of the greatest footballers in football history. .

Luxury teammates to support Ronaldo

His new team-mates will be former Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina, Cameroon striker Vincent Aboubakar and Talisca, the Brazilian striker who leads the Saudi Pro League’s scoring charts with nine goals since the start of the season. Odion Ighalo, the former Manchester United striker, is one of three players in second place with six goals. However, life in Saudi Arabia will be a completely new experience for Ronaldo, whose career so far has been spent in the historic footballing cities of Lisbon, Manchester, Madrid and Turin.

Ronaldo will cause a sensation in Saudi Arabia, a country with a strong league and national team, but he also risks disappearing from sight and mind after this change.

Social life in Riyadh seems to revolve around shopping malls. While Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy and an authoritarian state that strictly prohibits alcohol consumption and employs religious police to enforce its strict interpretation of Islam, the growing power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has allowed the country to shyly opening up to western influences in recent years.

It is in the malls that the new Saudi Arabia manifests itself, a world in which Ronaldo will soon be immersed. Those who expect Ronaldo to live in a country that does things differently from Europe and North America will be in for a surprise. It’s the same thing, but a little different.

A life of luxury on the streets of Riyadh

The View Mall in downtown Riyadh could be anywhere in London, New York or Los Angeles. The multiplex cinema shows “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” “Puss in Boots,” and “Bed Rest,” and there’s a bowling alley next to an arcade. Families dine at Nando’s, buy pies at Magnolia Bakery, or watch football on the big screens while waiting to bowl at Bob’s Famous Eat, Bowl and Chill.

The same goes for Kingdom Tower Mall, across town next to the Four Seasons Hotel, which may have been built for Ronaldo and his family. It caters to the rich (and famous) with Dior, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, Victoria’s Secret all having stores in this four story mall.

There is a Nike store across the street. A footballer dominates the window with his huge image surrounding the glass. He’s wearing a Manchester United shirt, but it’s not Ronaldo: it’s Marcus Rashford.

Talk to Uber drivers, hotel staff or bartenders and they all know and love football. Most of them say they are fans of Jeddah’s Al Ittihad, and all rave about Saudi Arabia’s recent performance at the World Cup, in which they defeated eventual champions Argentina 2-1. players, two of them are mentioned more often than the others: Paul Pogba and Mohamed Salah. Nobody is talking about Ronaldo or even Lionel Messi, who accepted a £25m deal in May to become the face of the Saudi tourism body.

“Pogba and Salah are very popular, mainly because they are great players, but also because they are Muslims”a source at the Saudi Ministry of Sports told the BBC. “They also support Pepsi, which is a big thing in Saudi Arabia because Pepsi dominates the market ahead of Coca-Cola. Both players are big names in this country, but major Saudi players are also very popular.

The life of a great footballer in Saudi Arabia is a privilege, but Ronaldo isn’t the only one getting the star treatment.

As part of their contract with Pro League teams, top players receive salaries comparable to those in Europe’s top leagues. While their earnings don’t compare to those of the highest paid players in the Premier League or La Liga, the overall benefits are so great that it is rare for a Saudi player to seek a move to Europe. A source told the BBC the main Saudi players are “treated like rock stars” and receive “huge houses in the best resorts [logements de luxe fermés et surveillés] and the cars they want”.

There is also no income tax for Saudi nationals, with a flat rate of 20% on tax-adjusted profits for non-Saudi nationals. In short, Ronaldo – and all foreign Pro League players – will lose much less of their winnings than in any European league.

Ronaldo can expect all the benefits reserved for Saudi Arabia’s best players. A luxury villa in the prestigious Al Muhammadiyah complex, the best schools for his children and a fleet of the best cars. But he will still have to negotiate the less pleasant aspects of Riyadh city life, such as traffic jams and pollution, like everyone else.

A new environment away from the spotlight for Ronaldo

Mrsool Park (Mrsool is an app-based delivery platform) can only seat 25,000 spectators when full. It’s clean and tidy, with yellow and blue seats to match Al-Nassr’s colours, but it’s tiny compared to Ronaldo’s previous stadiums at Old Trafford or the Santiago Bernabeu.

There isn’t even a club shop at the stadium. If you want to buy an Al-Nassr Ronaldo shirt with his number 7 on the back, you’ll need to take an Uber to the club’s small shop, 30 minutes away.

The size of the stadium and the lack of a club shop on the pitch certainly underscore the impression that Al-Nassr is not yet ready for the whirlwind of attention that Ronaldo will bring. Al-Ittihad are Saudi Arabia’s most-watched team, with an average attendance of 31,309 at the 62,000-capacity King Abdullah Sports City Stadium for the 2021-22 season. Defending champions Al-Hilal averaged 13,192 spectators per game at the 67,000 capacity King Fahd Stadium, while Al-Nassr was only able to muster an average of 8,121 at Msool Park.

It’s been a long time since Cristiano Ronaldo played a club match in a half-empty stadium, but he may need to get used to it in Saudi Arabia. His global stardom should spark renewed interest in matches, but he’d be optimistic if he expects full stadiums wherever he goes.

But if the Saudi Pro League is well-funded and supported by passionate fans – Al-Hilal ultras caused quite a stir in their recent friendly against Newcastle in Riyadh – it will be a different challenge for Ronaldo. But in the end, it’s all about football and Ronaldo can’t expect an easy ride.

“Football in Saudi Arabia is real”, Al Ittihad deputy director Ian Cathro told the BBC. “When I came here to work alongside Nuno Espirito Santo, having been part of his team at Wolves and Tottenham, one thing that struck me very quickly was how real everything is, in the sense that it is competitive and passionate, like wherever I work. The facilities are excellent, there’s real intensity here and the players are of a high quality, as we all saw with Saudi Arabia during the World Cup.

“There is also a real pride in the fact that all the best Saudi players still play in the national league. I am sure that Cristiano Ronaldo’s presence in the league will only increase the importance of Saudi football and put it on the map.”

Al-Nassr described signing Ronaldo as “a story in the making” when they announced the deal on Friday, adding that it “it would inspire our nation and future generations of boys and girls to be the best version of themselves.” That’s the legacy Ronaldo will want to leave behind after his time in Saudi Arabia, but when Al-Nassr takes on Al-Tai at Msool Park on 5 January, it will all become very concrete for the five-time Ballon d’Or winner.

Ronaldo will end his career out of the limelight and, for a player who has sought every second of the attention he’s gained over the last two decades, it will be a sad way for the curtain to fall.

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