Cristiano Ronaldo, amid all the money and hype surrounding his touchdown in Saudi Arabia, is finally, finally ready to get serious and play league soccer.
On his first outing, Ronaldo starred and scored twice for a Riyadh team—uniting players across the Saudi capital—in a friendly match against a star-studded Paris Saint-Germain on Thursday, with Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé on the scoresheet for the French opposition. Next up for the Portuguese is an official debut for his new side Al-Nassr.
Much like the €184 million ($200 million) minimum Ronaldo looks set to earn each season at Al-Nassr, the all-star clash screamed money—an event featuring some of the top-earning players in the world. And in a country whose capital is transforming the sport internally and abroad.
Billboard-fronting Ronaldo has understandably stolen the limelight lately. But there is more to Saudi Arabian soccer than Ronaldo and his millions of him. Like it or not, the nation is fast becoming an unignorable actor in the game outright.
Many other top-level players have forged careers in the Gulf nation. However, the Eurocentric, sharp focus on Champions League competition means they have fallen by the wayside, slipping off the radar almost entirely.
One teammate Ronaldo will become familiar with is the Brazilian midfielder Talisca, once a big deal at Benfica in Portugal and Besiktas in Turkey before leaving Europe for China, the Middle East, and the massive salaries that came with it.
Further forward is Vincent Aboubakar, an international star with Cameroon, who will aim to forge a tight on-field connection with Ronaldo. Behind them is goalkeeper David Ospina, well-known to Arsenal fans.
As for Al-Nassr’s fiercest opposition towards the top of the Saudi Pro League, versatile Argentinean attacker Luciano Vietto—who ended a promising career in La Liga—plies his trade for national superpower Al-Hilal. Al-Hilal also has Saudi forward Salem Al-Dawsari in its ranks; you know, the one whose strike helped shock eventual winner Argentina in the World Cup.
Then there is league leader Al-Ittihad, home to Hélder Costa, formerly a winger for Premier League sides Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leeds United. With Ronaldo joining them, more recognized talents will surely come, too—especially with coaches like Rudi Garcia (Al-Nassr) and Nuno Espírito Santo (Al-Ittihad) in the business.
And it’s not just the names. Al-Hilal’s Twitter following, sitting at over 10.7 million, is more than La Liga club Atlético Madrid and Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur—an indication of just how popular the sport is there. It’s certainly not a soccer backwater.
The place for mega events
European soccer, like boxing, is being staged more and more in Saudi Arabia. Elite leagues gravitate towards the millions of dollars and brand exposure gained by having their best teams play fixtures on the Gulf, even with sports washing a central issue.
Most notably, these are Spanish and Italian Super Cup competitions, annual showpiece matches played between La Liga and Serie A’s best league and cup teams.
Taking these games abroad is nothing new. Europe’s top divisions have been doing so for over a decade. Yet, with the Spanish Super Cup to be played in Saudi Arabia until 2029 and the Italian edition set to follow a similar path, host Riyadh is becoming a soccer capital. There are even murmurs that some league fixtures could be next.
How far could this go? Well. It would take some shift for England and Germany to do the same, partly due to staunch institutional reluctance to see these games break from tradition. Only France may start to listen more; no stranger to holding its Super Cup games on foreign soil.
From a Saudi perspective, there is a snowball effect to all this. By marrying its money with other leagues and clubs, such as wealthy PSG in an all-star game, it can gather all the superstars in true Super League fashion. Money talks and these lucrative events will only continue, bringing the best to Saudi Arabia and thus bringing Saudi Arabia closer to those watching around the globe.
Spreading its influence
Of course, Saudi Arabia already has some fingers on the Premier League with its takeover of Newcastle United. Middle Eastern soccer ownership is growing, with rumors that Liverpool’s US ownership could give way to Qatari backing if the right offer comes along.
The next step could be to have a stranglehold on the broadcasting front, with some suggestions it may take control of the Qatari beIN Media Group and, consequently, beIN Sports. While being the renowned broadcaster locally and in northern Africa, beIN is viewable from countries in Southeast Asia, Oceania, the United States, Canada, France, and Spain. Saudi Arabia would surely like to command an equivalent global reach, so that’s one to keep tabs on.
But perhaps the prime target is seven years away. After Qatar became the first nation from the region to host a World Cup, Saudi Arabia wants to enjoy a similar privilege. As it stands, a revolutionary joint bid with Egypt and Greece—spanning three continents—is on the cards. For those behind it, that would be the icing on the cake. By then, if not the case already, nobody will be able to ignore its presence.