(Riyadh) Cristiano Ronaldo’s first season in the Saudi Arabian championship did not unleash passions, but it could herald the arrival of other football megastars in the country.
The fireworks and euphoria triggered by the arrival of the Portuguese player with five golden balls gave way to a certain apathy when he finished the season with his club Al Nassr on the bench, injured, in the last game against Al Fateh on Wednesday.
After bringing in Ronaldo for two-and-a-half years and an unconfirmed $400 million deal, Al Nassr only finished second in the Saudi league, without a trophy but qualifying for the Asian Champions League as a consolation prize. And the Portuguese has only scored 14 goals, including five penalties.
But the arrival of the 38-year-old star, passed by Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus, remains a very good marketing operation for Saudi football which wants to impose itself on the world stage, and more generally for the country, which seeks to attract foreign investment and tourists.
According to several media, the seven-time Ballon d’Or and Argentinian world champion Lionel Messi, currently at PSG, has received a staggering offer of around 400 million euros ($580 million) per year to land in his turn in the kingdom. And, since Tuesday, the Spanish press has been talking about an offer from Al-ittihad which the last winner of the Ballon d’Or, the French striker of Real Madrid Karim Benzema, would think about.
The immense resources of the Saudi public investment fund could enable these transfers. They already fund the dissident golf league LIV and enabled the purchase of English club Newcastle United.
Saudi Arabia is also considering bidding to host the FIFA World Cup in 2030 or 2034, following the example of neighboring Qatar.
The efforts of the Saudi authorities to carve out a place for themselves in the world of sport are often criticized as aiming to mask their lackluster human rights record. Some 81 people were executed in a single day last year and homosexuality is still suppressed. The assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the premises of the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in 2018 also raised a wave of international indignation.
Ronaldo has made few public statements since arriving in Riyadh with his girlfriend, model Georgina Rodriguez, herself an influencer with 49.5 million Instagram followers.
After mistakenly calling his new adopted home “South Africa” when he was welcomed to Al Nassr, the Portuguese made up for it somewhat by believing the Saudi league could become one of the best in the world.
“Little by little, I think this championship will be among the top five in the world,” he said in an interview.
While Ronaldo cannot win games on his own, his arrival has shone the spotlight on the domestic league. The number of people following Al Nassr on Twitter increased from 800,000 to 4 million and on Instagram from 2 million to more than 14 million.
Female fans, still banned from stadiums a few years ago, have now become a familiar sight, with Ronaldo’s presence attracting families too.
But some fans complain about the rather disappointing performances of the player, who has often failed to leave his mark on matches.
After the draw against modest side Al Khaleej two weeks ago, Al Nassr supporter Mubarak Al-Shehri was indignant at Ronaldo’s “bad and incomprehensible performance”.
Another, Ibrahim Al-Suwailem, questioned the decision to bring him to Saudi Arabia. “Ronaldo alone is not enough. Is it worth that much money? It’s for publicity, but the fans ultimately want to win championships.”