Cristiano Ronaldo's move to Al Nassr puts Saudi Arabia football in the spotlight

Five-time Ballon d'Or winner's impact will be far-reaching and extend beyond the pitch

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It may not have marked the record-breaking move to Madrid, or the fevered homecoming in Manchester, but Cristiano Ronaldo was clearly revelling still in his Riyadh celebration.

Hailed repeatedly as the best footballer of all-time – the debate, surely never to cease, has refocused recently in lieu of Lionel Messi’s World Cup win and Pele’s death – the five-time Ballon d’Or winner basked in the glare throughout Tuesday night, when he was introduced officially as Al Nassr's superstar signing.

The pomp and ceremony that greeted Ronaldo at a sold-out Mrsool Stadium – the fireworks, the flattery, the once-in-a-lifetime, major-acquisition feel – must have reinforced in his mind at least that the decision made was the correct one.

Four days before, when Nassr confirmed they had agreed a two-and-a-half-year contract with the former Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus forward, the deal was described by the club as “transformative”, a “partnership” they said that would extend far beyond the pitch.

Ronaldo reiterated that on Tuesday, speaking of inspiring generations and changing how this “amazing country” is perceived around the world. His presence should be catalysing. It already is. As seems to be the default gauge these days, Al Nassr’s Instagram account has swelled from around 800,000 followers to more than nine million.

Remember, Ronaldo perches way out in front as the most followed person on Instagram (528 million). Person. Not simply as footballer, or athlete. Messi trails him. Selena Gomez. Dwayne Johnson. Kim Kardashian. Beyonce. It points to a still-there, unparalleled pull.

Even deep in the twilight of a career that includes five Uefa Champions League crowns, seven domestic titles – England, Spain, Italy – and two major trophies with Portugal as their captain, Ronaldo brings more as the complete package – eyeballs, marketability, sponsorship – than arguably any other player on the planet.

Distilled purely to his profession, he is without doubt the most high-profile footballer to ply his trade in the region. Rivelino, the World Cup winner with Brazil in 1970, concluded his career in Saudi, at Al Hilal; Bebeto, world champion in 1994, spent an albeit-brief spell in the kingdom; so too Denilson, once like Ronaldo the most expensive player in history. Bulgarian great Hristo Stoichkov had a stint at Nassr, also short.

In the UAE, George Weah and Fabio Cannavaro brought down their Ballon d’Or careers at Al Jazira and Al Ahli, respectively. Qatar, meanwhile, has in the past been home – to varying lengths of time – to Romario, Marcel Desailly, Pep Guardiola, Gabriel Batistuta, Raul and Xavi.

Yet Ronaldo represents something different altogether. Yes, he may turn 38 next month, and the supposition is that he lacked appreciated offers from major European clubs following an acrimonious exit in November from Manchester United.

Unlike Rivelino, Romario, Desailly and Xavi, he has not captured a World Cup, his fifth and final attempt wrecked last month in the quarter-finals by a brilliant Morocco. Ronaldo, who in Qatar made yet more history by becoming the first man to score in five global finals, departed in tears, his footballing future apparently uncertain.

At Mrsool Park, for the foreseeable anyway, that appears secure. Of course, the reported $200-plus-million-per year goes a significant way to ensuring that. What's more, Ronaldo will surely be guaranteed his place in the team should he remain fit and healthy.

The Saudi Pro League, although not the Premier League or La Liga or Serie A, will provide a genuine test as to what he has left in the tank. Nassr lead after 11 matches, but they hold a one-point advantage over second-placed Al Shabab, who have a game in hand. Al Ittihad, a spot below, would leapfrog them should they win their outstanding game. Al Hilal, the great cross-city rival and regular success story, are only four points back and retained the title last season from a worse position. Lying fifth, they are a point behind Al Taawoun.

The Saudi Pro League is possibly more competitive than ever, thanks in part to the increased influx of foreign players. Ronaldo, by some way the standout import – not just now, but in history – will be expected to catapult Nassr’s tilt for a first top-flight trophy in four years, and 10th overall.

Obviously, the anticipation is that his impact will be considerably more far-reaching, with Saudi football set for an unprecedented spell in the spotlight. But, initially, Ronaldo will be judged by what he can do on the pitch. The next few months should make for fascinating viewing.

Updated: January 23, 2023, 12:11 PM