Cristiano Ronaldo (191 Viewers)


Senior Member
Mar 23, 2015
athletic article:

Inside Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr: Rejection, revenge and soft power

During the explosive interview that effectively ended his Manchester United career, it was put to Cristiano Ronaldo that a move to Saudi Arabia would be beneath him.

“You want to keep playing at the highest level,” Piers Morgan suggested in the broadcast in November on the eve of the World Cup. “You want to play Champions League football. You want to be breaking records.

“It comes back to my gut feeling: that if it was just about money, you’d be in Saudi Arabia earning a king’s ransom.

“But that’s not what motivates you. You want to keep at the top.”

“Exactly,” Ronaldo told the TalkTV host. “Because I still believe that I can score many, many goals and help the team.”

It was much the same message that came back from Ronaldo’s camp when Saudi Pro League champions Al Hilal made what was described as an “obscene” offer for his services last summer and when their rivals Al Nassr made a similar proposal in the final days of August.

The numbers involved were said to be jaw-dropping, but Ronaldo barely gave Saudi Arabia a thought last summer, believing a leading Champions League club would present him an escape from his increasingly unhappy existence in Manchester.

And even as his entourage negotiated the mutual termination of his contract with United on November 22 following the ructions caused by his interview with Morgan, there was a belief in the Ronaldo camp that he would join a leading European club in January.

But on December 30, Ronaldo became the highest-paid player in football history, signing a two-and-a-half-year contract with Al Nassr, which will see him earn £173million ($210m) a year. He went on to declare that “in Europe, my work is done”.

Here, The Athletic details:

  • How Ronaldo’s move to Al Nassr happened
  • Real Madrid passing on the idea of a reunion
  • His relationship with Jorge Mendes
  • The commercial factor
  • How Al Nassr sought revenge on their domestic rivals
  • Why the Saudi Pro League will use Ronaldo as a springboard
  • What Ronaldo can expect from a footballing perspective
The moment Ronaldo made clear last summer that he wanted to leave United, Mendes, his long-time agent, was tasked with finding the 37-year-old a new club. But there was a key condition: they needed to be playing Champions League football.

It quickly became evident, however, that there was little interest among Europe’s elite, despite Ronaldo scoring 24 goals for United in all competitions during the 2021-22 season.

Chelsea’s new owner Todd Boehly met Mendes in Portugal in June and was captivated by the thought of bringing Ronaldo to Stamford Bridge, but head coach Thomas Tuchel dismissed the idea out of hand. Bayern Munich officials entertained a conversation with Mendes, but chief executive Oliver Kahn said: “Every club has a certain philosophy and I’m not sure if it would be the right signal for Bayern if we signed him.”


Ronaldo cut a hugely frustrated figure in his final few months at Manchester United (Photo: Matthew Ashton — AMA/Getty Images)
Mendes called Real Madrid several times during the summer to offer Ronaldo to them, but no proposal to bring him back to the Bernabeu was forthcoming. Other leading clubs rejected invitations to sign Ronaldo even when they were told United might be willing to cover the majority of his salary for this season.

In August, Real president Florentino Perez was asked about the prospect of Ronaldo returning to Madrid. Perez responded by getting Ronaldo’s age wrong before walking away.

“Again? He’s 38 years old,” he said.

Days after Portugal’s elimination from the World Cup, Ronaldo was pictured training alone at Real’s Valdebebas base, prompting some speculation about a return to the club where he scored an extraordinary 450 goals in nine seasons.

The reality was more straightforward: Real had opened their doors to their all-time record goalscorer to help him work on his fitness while looking for a new club, but a reunion was never on the cards despite the player’s wishes.

Having not managed to secure the move Ronaldo wanted in the summer, Mendes wasn’t involved in Ronaldo’s lucrative move to Saudi Arabia. Instead, it was left to Ricardo Regufe and a team of lawyers to negotiate the biggest contract in the history of the game.

There is a growing belief in Saudi Arabia, no doubt heightened by the arrival of the world’s most famous footballer, that the kingdom can achieve or attain anything it desires.

But when Al Hilal and then, more speculatively, Al Nassr tried to sign Ronaldo in the summer, few in Riyadh were convinced it could happen. It was a distant ambition, maybe for another year or two down the line.

Saudi Arabian FA president Yasser Almisehal told The Athletic in September that he would “love” to see Ronaldo move to the SPL (Saudi Pro League), but that “it wouldn’t be an easy transaction” and “it would be a very expensive deal, of course”.

He wasn’t wrong.

The obvious question is: who is paying for it?

Al Nassr are the second-richest club in Saudi Arabia, behind Riyadh rivals Al Hilal, and they have recently paid significant sums to attract players such as Cameroon forward Vincent Aboubakar and former Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina. But their commercial revenue last season of 97.9m Saudi riyals (approximately $26m or £21.4m) means they could not begin to afford Ronaldo’s wages without outside help.

Several different Saudi entities had to come together to assist Al Nassr in making the Ronaldo deal happen.

Ronaldo gives his first press conference in Saudi Arabia (Photo: Khalid Alhaj/MB Media/Getty Images)
One was Visit Saudi, the kingdom’s tourist board. Visit Saudi is not – or had not previously been – known to be among Al Nassr’s sponsors, but it was very visible as a commercial partner for Ronaldo’s official presentation in Riyadh last week, which appeared to be a sign of things to come.

Lionel Messi, Ronaldo’s long-time playing rival, is an ambassador for Visit Saudi, promoting the kingdom as a tourist destination. It is firmly expected that Ronaldo’s name and image will be utilised in the same way.

Another was Saudi Media Company (SMC), the media sales representative for the Saudi Broadcasting Authority and the operator of Al Nassr’s stadium Mrsool Park.

In a tweet celebrating the acquisition of Ronaldo, Al Nassr president Musalli Al-Muammar praised “my dear brothers who worked hard to complete the biggest deal in the history of Saudi sports”, adding, “Foremost among them is my dear, optimistic brother, Muhammad Al-Khuraiji”.

Al-Khuraiji, the highly-influential chairman of SMC, joined Al-Muammar as part of the delegation that travelled to Madrid to negotiate with Ronaldo and Regufe on behalf of Al Nassr.

Regufe was pictured meeting Al Nassr officials in Riyadh on December 20, but the most significant negotiations were those in Madrid.

The Saudi delegation in Madrid were so desperate to keep negotiations secret that they barely left their hotel.

“I did not tour Madrid,” Al-Khuraiji told Al-Arabiya. “We stayed three or four days in the same hotel. Given that it was a large global event, we preferred to hide in the meeting room in the hotel. The real mutual desire between all parties contributed to the success of this partnership.”

The full agreement was formalised in Madrid on December 28, leaving Al Nassr to announce the deal two nights later before Ronaldo and his partner Georgina Rodriguez flew to Riyadh in a private jet on January 2.

For Al Nassr, it represents an extraordinary coup – and one that was unwittingly facilitated by their fiercest rivals.

Al Hilal made the first move to sign Ronaldo last summer and, as the kingdom’s biggest and most successful club – winners of last season’s SPL and the Asian Champions League – would have been the more obvious destination for any superstar coming to Saudi Arabia.

But Al Hilal are currently serving a transfer ban after Mohamed Kanno, a midfielder for the Saudi national team, extended his contract with them having previously signed a deal to join Al Nassr. Al Hilal retained Kanno’s services last summer, but an unsuccessful appeal against the sanction forced them to pull out of contention for Ronaldo last August and left them powerless to prevent him joining Al Nassr last week.

As such, signing Ronaldo is seen as the ultimate revenge for Al Nassr, who, with the Portugal forward, will aim to deny Al Hilal a fourth consecutive SPL title.

During Ronaldo’s now-infamous interview with Morgan in November, he referred to how he views the sport.

“I see football now as a business,” he claimed. “The passion for the game is still intact. But in the same way, I saw other things as well, which surprised me. If you see the world how it is at the moment, it is all business.”

Ronaldo will go down as one of the greatest footballers of all time, but his latest move also underlines his commitment to maximising his earning capacity. According to Saudi state media reports, he will earn £173m ($210m) a year in Riyadh – £62m ($75.3m) purely for his playing commitments to Al Nassr and the rest spread across image rights and commercial or ambassadorial deals.

It has been suggested Ronaldo will be involved in the anticipated Saudi bid to host the 2030 World Cup, but sources close to the former United player, speaking on condition on anonymity to protect relationships, insist his deal does not include any such commitment – not least because of the possibility that Portugal might also bid to stage the tournament.

On Wednesday night, Al Nassr released a statement saying that “Ronaldo’s contract with Al Nassr does not entail commitments to any World Cup bids. His main focus is on Al Nassr and to work with his teammates to help the club achieve success”.

The reality is that Ronaldo could hardly do more to endorse Saudi Arabia than he has already done by joining Al Nassr.


A billboard displaying Ronaldo lights up the night sky in Riyadh (Photo: Fayez Nureldine/AFP)
As well as promoting Saudi Arabia’s image worldwide, Ronaldo’s image will be used to encourage sports participation.

Adwa Al-Arifi, the deputy sports minister, told The Athletic in October that Saudi Arabia’s wide-ranging investments in international sport – including the Public Investment Fund’s acquisition of Newcastle United – should be seen in the context of the wider objectives of increasing sports participation in the kingdom.

Saudi FA president Almisehal also referred to this potential aspect last September, citing Ronaldo’s status as a “role model” who could inspire young people in particular to play football and encourage a healthy lifestyle.

For the club’s part, the benefits of signing one of the most recognisable figures in the world – with 532 million Instagram followers, more than anyone on the planet – are obvious.

In the days before his move to Al Nassr was announced, the club had around 860,000 followers on Instagram. They now have more than 11 million.

“It absolutely does put Saudi on the map and it would no doubt be part of their sports plan,” Ben Peppi, the head of sports services at JMW Solicitors, tells The Athletic.

“We are not saying anything controversial by saying he is going there because Saudi will be paying him more money than anyone else. But there will also be a commercial element to him going there.

“They have unlimited funds to be able to bring some of the world’s best players there over the next five to 10 years and they may be using Ronaldo as the start of that project.

“These entities are not as unplanned as people make out. They wouldn’t have just thought, ‘Oh, it’s Cristiano Ronaldo, let’s pay him loads of money and it will be great for us’. It is all aligned to a very specific sports strategy.

“And when you have the money they have, and you can throw the amount of money that they will at these projects, it makes it far easier on paper.”

For Ronaldo, it is not just the promise of the mind-boggling numbers on the contract he has signed. There is also the increased exposure for the Ronaldo brand — or, if you prefer, the CR7 fashion and lifestyle brand, which boasts hotels in New York, Marrakesh, Madrid, Lisbon and Madeira.

Each year, Forbes, the American business magazine, details the highest-paid athletes and, in their 2022 edition, Ronaldo came third behind Messi and NBA star LeBron James.

Forbes tracks income collected between May 2021 and May 2022, which they base on conversations with industry insiders and – although not in all cases – representatives for the athletes.

Ronaldo is unveiled as an Al Nassr player (Photo: Yasser Bakhsh/Getty Images)
The business magazine says Ronaldo had earned $115m (£94.6m), of which $60m (£49.3m) was accrued via on-the-field earnings and $55m (£45.2m) through off-field deals.

This only serves to highlight Ronaldo’s commercial pull. He has a long-standing endorsement from American sportswear company Nike, luxury watchmaker Jacob & Co and in November he appeared alongside Messi in a photoshoot for Louis Vuitton.

But when you consider the human rights concerns facing Saudi Arabia and how some companies will not want to be associated with the country, you wonder whether his move to Al Nassr could lead to some of his commercial partners being put under pressure to sever ties with Ronaldo.

Even if this happened, though, Peppi is confident Western companies would quickly be replaced.

“If you look at the trend of what happened in the World Cup, for example, and look at the family of sponsors who have deals with the World Cup and FIFA, it skews massively towards China and the East,” Peppi added. “Historically, it didn’t do that.

“Football is entirely global, and there will be several Western and blue-chip companies that wouldn’t touch Saudi, even if Ronaldo is there. And there will be certain sponsors who wouldn’t touch Ronaldo in a personal capacity because he is playing there, so it will affect his commercial attractiveness.

“But that doesn’t mean there will not be an influx of Middle Eastern partners that will pump an enormous amount of money behind the league. If he cracks the Gulf and the Middle East as well as all the other territories he has cracked, it is another new market for Cristiano Ronaldo the commercial beast, as opposed to Cristiano Ronaldo the footballer.”

The fanfare which greeted Ronaldo’s arrival, including the sight of hundreds of adults screaming “Siiiiuuuuuuuu”, should not come as a surprise. After all, he is one of the greatest players to ever play football – and his mere presence will attract a bigger audience to the Saudi Pro League.

One message from Saudi Arabia over the past week is that Ronaldo is joining a league that, far more than the UAE Pro League or the Qatar Stars League, attracts serious interest in a nation whose passion for the game was evident – both from the national team and their supporters – at the recent World Cup. Recent SPL imports include Ever Banega at Al Shabab and Matheus Pereira and Odion Ighalo at Al Hilal as well as Ospina, Aboubakar, Luiz Gustavo and Anderson Talisca at Al Nassr.

But there is also a firm hope and expectation that Ronaldo’s arrival will help to attract more high-profile players to Saudi Arabia over the coming years. Already in the past week there is said to have been a surge in interest among players and agents – not unlike that several years ago when a number of elite players were lured by the wealth of Chinese Super League clubs. Ronaldo’s signing is described as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

For now, though, it really is shaping into the Ronaldo show, which is why the SPL have been contemplating how best to capitalise on its newfound popularity.


Ronaldo greets Musalli Al-Muammar – the president of Al Nassr (Photo: Yasser Bakhsh/Getty Images)
The surge in interest makes it more frustrating for all concerned that his debut has been put on hold while he serves a two-match suspension, dished out by the English Football Association for knocking the phone out of a young spectator’s hand during Manchester United’s defeat at Everton last April. Under FIFA rules, the sanction, imposed at a disciplinary hearing in November, applies even though he is now registered in another country.

Ronaldo played no part in Al Nassr’s victory over Al-Ta’ee last Friday and is expected to complete his suspension by sitting out Saturday’s game against title rivals Al-Shabab. Al Nassr will also have to free up a space in their squad before registering him; reports in Saudi Arabia have suggested Aboubakar’s deal could be terminated.

Rudi Garcia, Al Nassr’s head coach, revealed on Monday that Ronaldo’s first appearance will likely come in a friendly against Paris Saint-Germain – that’s right, Messi’s Paris Saint-Germain – on January 19.

And there is a further twist. “It (his debut) won’t be with the Al Nassr jersey,” Garcia said. “It will be a mix between Al Hilal and Al Nassr.

“As the coach of Al Nassr, I cannot be happy with this match. In terms of scheduling, it could have been better thought out. But it’s not a big deal… We are in the lead and we are happy. It is a difficult championship to win, but we intend to do it.”

It means Ronaldo is likely to start with an exhibition match. But beyond that, what can he expect on the pitch in Saudi Arabia?

“He is one of the greatest of all time, so that (adjusting to the competition) won’t be an issue,” Ian Cathro, a former coach at Tottenham Hotspur who now works at Al-Ittihad, tells The Athletic.

“In general, it is a lesser level of player across the board in comparison to the Premier League. But there are good players here.

“One thing I would point out is the impact of the climate because that naturally affects the speed of games. Games can become a little bit broken up at times where one team counter-attacks, then the other team counter-attacks, and there can be quite a bit of space.

“There are periods in the games where, quite frankly, it needs to slow down, so it can be a slower pace just through necessity. It is impossible to play anything similar to Premier League intensities in this environment and climate. I don’t see anything other than him being successful.”

Cathro believes Ronaldo’s signing is a “landmark moment” for the Saudi Pro League and he hopes the increased interest does not subside and that the added investment helps develop the next generation of homegrown players.

“The positive impact it will have on the league and the future development of football in the country, then you can only say positive things,” Cathro added. “After that, it is down to them to build from it and make it an important moment for how they develop their own young talent and the infrastructure in the clubs.

“Clearly they are doing a good job because we are seeing some good young players and the World Cup was another positive indication. People here love football and that is something we don’t hear about.”

Even though Ronaldo has 173 million reasons to be satisfied with the outcome, an unfortunate slip of the tongue at his unveiling led to him saying: “For me, it’s not the end of my career to come to South Africa.”

Nobody was brave enough to correct the geographical mistake, but it is easy to see why Ronaldo might have found it hard to get his head around the move after a turbulent few months in which he has forced his way out of United and endured bitter frustration at the World Cup in Qatar (where, to make things worse for Ronaldo, Lionel Messi cemented his claim to be the greatest player of his generation – and possibly of all time).


The World Cup was a chastening experience for the Portugal star (Photo: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
While Messi basks in the glory of Argentina’s World Cup triumph and prepares for the resumption of the Champions League campaign at PSG, Ronaldo, 38 next month, finds himself in Saudi Arabia – a destination he declared off-limits last summer and appeared to rule out as recently as November, such was his desire to keep playing at the very highest level.

He insists he still had offers to go elsewhere — “many opportunities in Europe, many clubs in Brazil, Australia, in the U.S. and even Portugal” — but ultimately he had reached the stage in his career where the sporting challenge he wanted was not forthcoming. Whatever the other incentives, the main attraction of playing in Saudi Arabia is pretty clear.

Perhaps that is why, rather than answer questions from the media at last week’s presentation in Riyadh, Ronaldo merely took a few soft deliveries from the hostess who welcomed him to the stage by lauding him as the “world’s greatest footballer”.

But at least Ronaldo still has Morgan on his side. When asked by one Twitter user for his “thoughts on Ronaldo being finished”, the former Daily Mirror editor replied: “Last time I checked, @Cristiano had just signed the biggest transfer deal in football history to become the world’s highest-paid athlete at the age of 38 (sic), playing in the only country to beat World Champions Argentina in the World Cup.

“That’s my kinda ‘finished’.”

Buy on


In Allegri We Trust
May 23, 2011
As a great player he was, he has always been awful at freekicks. I dont get why coaches let him take them. We had Dybala and Pjanic, both amazing at freekicks and scored plenty in seasons before. But then he was picked ahead of them. Id even even pick a goalie ahead of CR to take freekicks.

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