Cristiano Ronaldo proud to be 'pioneer' of Saudi football and downplays Messi rivalry

Portuguese star and Al Nassr captain first of many high-profile players to move to kingdom

Al Nassr captain Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 12 goals in 11 appearances, including finishing top scorer in the recent King Salman Club Cup. EPA
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Cristiano Ronaldo says he is proud to be a “pioneer” for football in Saudi Arabia, insisting it has become normal for the game’s top stars to play in the kingdom.

The Portuguese forward, 38, joined Saudi Pro League (SPL) club Al Nassr in late December on a two-and-a-year deal, paving the way for a number of high-profile players to follow him to the top tier this summer.

Brazil superstar Neymar, current Ballon d’Or holder Karim Benzema, African Footballer of the Year Sadio Mane, World Cup winner N’Golo Kante, and former Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson are only some of the headline names to move to the SPL in the past few months.

The league has publicly declared its ambition to develop into one of the top-five domestic competitions in the world. The kingdom’s aggressive recruitment drive this summer has led to criticism from lead football figures in Europe, including Uefa president Alexander Ceferin and Barcelona counterpart Joan Laporta.

Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday night while on international duty with Portugal, Ronaldo said: "It's normal to criticise. What league is not criticised? Where aren't there problems and controversy? There are everywhere; Saudi Arabia, Portugal, and the current in Spain [regarding Spanish football federation president Luis Rubiales].

"I already knew, and I still say as I said six months ago: everyone thought I was so crazy about this move. But after all, it isn't so crazy any more.

“Now, it's normal to play in the Saudi league. I knew this was going to happen. As an Al Nassr player, I have been playing for eight months and I feel the improvement.”

Ronaldo, who said he believed the SPL is now a better standard than Portugal’s Primeira Liga, has enjoyed a superb start to the 2023/24 season with Nassr.

The club captain has scored 12 goals in 11 appearances, including finishing top scorer in the recent King Salman Club Cup as he secured a first title with Nassr.

In the league, Ronaldo has struck six goals in his past three matches – he drew a blank in his first game – and registered four assists to sit top of both charts. He was thus named the SPL’s player of the month for August.

“For me, it’s a great honour to change how people see the country and its culture," said Ronaldo, who boasts the most followers of anyone on Instagram. "Not only that, but also the level of football is great now, and that makes me very happy and proud.

“Why don’t we give them an opportunity if they have potential and values. They also have great players and want to transform their football into the most competitive in the world.

“I was the pioneer and I feel proud of it. I want the Saudi league to continue to evolve in the upcoming years to become a remarkable top league.”

Asked also about his apparent long-time rivalry with Lionel Messi – the Argentine now plays in the United States with Inter Miami – the five-time Ballon d’Or winner said: “I don’t see things that way. We shared the stage for 15 years. I won’t say we’re friends, but we respect each other.

"The competition with Messi was good, and the fans loved it. If you love Cristiano, there’s no need to hate Messi. Both of them have changed the course of football history and deserve respect.

"The competition between them is over. Both are doing well in Saudi Arabia and the American league.”

Updated: September 07, 2023, 8:28 AM