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What Does Ronaldo’s Arrival Mean For Saudi Football?

The debate over who is the Greatest Of All Time is one that is destined to wage on forever without a single, concrete answer. However, what most everyone can agree on at least is that Cristiano Ronaldo is firmly in the conversation for that moniker. 

To say the Portuguese forward has had a stellar career would be an understatement. With multiple league titles, champions league trophies, ballon d’or awards and more to his name, CR7 has experienced a level of success that his peers will undoubtedly envy.

A lot of the silverware he has won over the course of his highly decorated career came with the club where he experienced his first big break, Manchester United. He spent six incredible years with the Red Devils, winning every trophy possible along with the hearts of millions of United fans. That is why his return to Old Trafford for his second spell with the club in 2021 was so historic.

However, after a great first season, his relationship with the club soured. In a highly publicized fallout, Ronaldo announced his wish to leave Manchester United. That wish was granted when his contract was canceled in November 2022.

Immediately, rumors of his next move were rife. Moves to Chelsea, Bayern Munich, and even a return to Real Madrid were all spoken about and sports betting even had Chelsea as odds on favorites to secure his signature at one point, but none came to fruition. With so many top European clubs reportedly interested in capturing his signing, his next move came as somewhat of a shock. On December 30th, just a little over a month after leaving United, Saudi club Al Nassr reached an agreement for Ronaldo to join the club on a two and a half year deal. 

Whilst many have spoken of why he chose Al Nassr, there is no doubt that the reported €200m per year salary did a lot of the talking. This is the highest salary in football history. Ronaldo has however spoke of his apparent admiration for the Saudi Pro League (SPL), saying “I know the league is very competitive. People don’t know that, but I know because I saw many games.”

However, it may prove to be just as lucrative of a signing for Saudi football as a whole. To begin with, Ronaldo’s reach and sheer star power is enough to bring millions of new eyes to Saudi football. In fact, anticipation of his first game in an Al Nassr shirt saw an incredible two million people queuing online for tickets. 

Fresh off of hosting the World Cup, Saudi Arabia is already in the midst of finding their footballing identity. This was boosted during the tournament when they recorded a historic victory over Argentina, arguably the biggest underdog victory in World Cup history. The SPL has been importing good foreign talent for the last couple of years, but their name value pales in comparison to Ronaldo.

James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera that Saudi football should not be underestimated.

“Saudi Arabia is a Middle Eastern football powerhouse.” Dorsey said. “They have better foreign players and now they have Ronaldo.”

Ronaldo’s commercial impact on the club and on Saudi football since his arrival has also been evident. For example, Al Nassr boasted a healthy 850,000 followers on Instagram the day before his signing was announced. Fast forward to not even two months later and they now have an incredible 12.8 million. This dwarfs the second most followed club in the league, Al Hilal, by over 9 million followers.

Of course, this boost in reputation means that broadcasters are likely to be salivating at the thought of securing the rights to SPL matches. In fact, just three weeks after CR7’s arrival, the SPL and Portuguese pay-TV network Sports TV inked a broadcast rights partnership that includes all games featuring Ronaldo. This was mirrored by subscription-based television and internet broadcaster Sportdigital Fussball in Germany, streaming platform DGO in Brazil and free-to-air digital terrestrial channel L’Equipe in France.

Dorsey also says that this is more than just a vanity signing for Al Nassr and Saudi football, saying “The signing is an indication that Saudi Arabia is serious…[Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman wants the country to be the focal point of the region.”

It may even be the first in a long line of future major foreign transfers. Anderson Talisca, Pity Martinez and now Cristiano Ronaldo are three players from major foreign nations (Brazil, Argentina, and Portugal respectively) now plying their trade in the SPL. But rumors abound that the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, N’Golo Kante, and even Ronaldo’s fellow GOAT contender Lionel Messi are being lined up to move to the biggest pro-football league in the Middle East. The future of the league looks very bright and this may just be the beginning.

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