Football: Saudi league steps up game to join top-flight leagues

Cristiano Ronaldo’s first season in the Saudi league didn’t quite stir the passions, but his debut in the league could indicate the potential arrival of other football megastars.

The 5-time Ballon d’Or winner arrived in January, signing a record two-and-a-half-year contract for almost $400 million. Six months later, his club Al-Nassr only ended second in the Saudi league, but Ronaldo got the job done, scoring 14 goals in 16 matches.

In comparison, his predecessor at Al-Nassr, Cameroon’s Aboubakar Vincent, scored just 4 goals in 11 appearances. The former Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus player finished fifth in the scoring charts, behind Moroccan Abderrazzak Hamdallah (21 goals) and Nigerian Odion Ighalo (19 goals), until then local stars.

Above all, signing Cristiano Ronaldo is an excellent marketing stunt for Saudi soccer, which is seeking to establish itself on the world stage, and more generally for the country, which is striving to attract foreign investment and tourists. 

According to several media reports, seven-time Ballon d’Or winner and Argentinian world champion Lionel Messi, currently with PSG, has received a staggering offer of around 400 million euros a year to move to the Middle East. And since Tuesday (May 30), Spanish newspapers have been talking about an offer from Al-Ittihad, which the latest Ballon d’Or winner, Real Madrid’s French striker Karim Benzema, is reportedly considering. On Friday (May 2nd), the Neymar rumor spread like wildfire among Saudi fans.

The immense resources of the Saudi public investment fund could make these transfers possible. They already finance the alertanive LIV golf league and have enabled the purchase of English club Newcastle United, which qualified for the next Champions League for the first time in twenty years.

Saudi Arabia is also considering bidding to host the FIFA World Cup in 2030 or 2034, following the example of neighboring Qatar.

“Among the best in the next five years”

The Saudi authorities’ efforts to gain a foothold in the sporting world are often decried as an attempt to hide their human rights record. Some 81 people were executed in a single day last year, and homosexuality is still repressed. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the premises of the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in 2018 had also raised a wave of international outrage.

After mistakenly referring to his new adopted land as “South Africa” when he was welcomed to Al-Nassr, the Portuguese made up for it somewhat by saying that the Saudi league could become one of the best in the world.

“AnIn my opinion, if they continue to do the work that they want to do here, for the next five years, I think the Saudi league can be in the five (top leagues) in the world. If they are coming, big players, big names, young players, ‘old players’, they are very welcome because if that happens, the league will improve. Age is not important,” the 38 years old said.

In an official interview to the Saudi Pro League which was released on Thursday (June 1st), he pledged to stay in Saudi next year.

“We have very good teams, very good Arab players. But they need to improve a little bit more the infrastructure. Even the referees, the VAR system, should be a little quicker,” he said.

“I think other small things they need to improve. But I am happy here, I want to continue here, I will continue here.”

Although it quickly became clear that the veteran player could not win games single-handed, Saudi football has never enjoyed such attention.

Al Nassr’s Twitter followers have jumped from 800,000 to more than four million, and swelled from two million to 14 million-plus on Instagram.

“Je suis heureux ici, je veux continuer ici et je continuerai ici”, a assuré Ronaldo lors d’un entretien accordé à la Saudi Pro League, la ligue de football professionnel du royaume.

Women fans, barred from football stadiums until just a few years ago, have become a common sight, while Ronaldo has also drawn many families with children.

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