Cristiano Ronaldo in the worldwide spotlight as he stars in Al Nassr debut

Portuguese helps his new side go top of the table as Saudi Arabia welcomes its new superstar

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Officially, the Cristiano Ronaldo era at Al Nassr, with Saudi Arabian football still coming to terms with their superstar arrival, is up and running.

On Sunday night, one of the most recognisable athletes on the planet made his delayed debut for his new employers, captaining the Riyadh side to a 1-0 victory against Al Ettifaq at an excitable and expectant Mrsool Park.

It wasn’t quite the performance to match the pageantry, yet still it felt enough. Certainly, it hinted at more to come. There were stepovers and shots from distance, the obligatory free-kick off target, even an attempted overhead kick.

Maybe, there was a part to play in the game’s only goal. If Ronaldo didn’t glance Abdulmajeed Al Sulaiheem’s cross on to Anderson Talisca’s head right on the half-hour, then he definitely proved enough of a distraction to allow his teammate to strike.

Predictably, and as it was always going to be, Ronaldo represented the main attraction. Even before the concluding fixture on Saudi Pro League Matchday 14 had unfolded, Nassr declared on their ever-swelling social media that “starting today” more than 30 television channels would broadcast the contest worldwide. ESPN were cited in the United States; CCTV in China; Sky Sports and others in Europe. Channels in Africa, Albania, Thailand and Indonesia, too.

Adding to the sense of occasion, Fabrizio Romano, the world’s foremost social-media transfer guru, was in attendance, taking in the action from the VIP section.

For that’s what Ronaldo brings. Nassr have at times felt the centre of the footballing world since the five-time Ballon d’Or winner agreed last month to a two-and-a-half-year contract that is thought to earn him more than $200 million per annum.

Add that up for what Nassr hope will constitute his entire stay in the capital, and that’s about as many million followers as Ronaldo has on Instagram – more than any other person on the platform. Patently, he is more than simply a footballer.

It felt as much earlier this month at his official and frenzied introduction at Mrsool Park, or last Thursday, when Ronaldo captained an Allstar XI against Lionel Messi and Paris Saint-Germain in an exhibition in Riyadh. Not to be outdone, Ronaldo scored twice then, collecting yet another the man-of-the-match award in a career full of them.

Three days on, the first chants of “Ronaldo” echoed around Mrsool Park long before kick-off and when the stadium was still sparely populated. The Nassr ultras, committed and no doubt canny enough to get to their seats early, waved their giant flags and called out for their new arrival.

When Ronaldo did emerge, for the warm-up and leading out his side, he was welcomed with a mighty roar. He clapped high above his head and, ever the pro, set about his drills.

His first touch in the match brought another swirl of noise, even if the ball was stuck below his feet, possession relinquished. A misplaced pass soon followed. Then encouragement from the Nassr faithful.

Ronaldo offered that, also, whenever a teammate overhit the ball, or a cross was misdirected; of those, there were a few. Still, Ronaldo clapped once more, or raised a thumb in appreciation.

On seven minutes, his shot from range was deflected for a corner. Later, he fell in the Ettifaq penalty area following a collision – of sorts – with rival defender Marcel Tisserand, but Ronaldo’s brief protest was correctly waved away.

On the half-hour, he rose as illogically high as he has for most of his career to meet Al Sulaiheem’s inswinging cross from the left and, while he appeared poised to head home, the ball was nodded into the Ettifaq net by Talisca.

Ronaldo looked to have, perhaps instinctively, claimed an assist with the faintest of touches, but the replays showed that might have been a mite optimistic. Not that anyone cared, really. Nassr were in front.

Before the half was out, Ronaldo fired a free-kick from 20-odd yards well over the Ettifaq crossbar, while an attempted back-heel elicited a few sarcastic screams. Even five-time Uefa Champions League winners aren’t immune to a bit of ridicule.

Never one to be deterred, the former Manchester United forward took aim at the Ettifaq goal at the beginning of the second half, only for his effort to be deflected for a corner.

Just before the hour, Ronaldo chased a ball over the top to the touchline and expertly picked out Pity Martinez with his cross. The playmaker’s sumptuous left-footed volley was superbly tipped over by Ettifaq goalkeeper Paulo Victor.

At one stage, Ronaldo tried an overhead kick, flinging the mind back to that Real Madrid goal at Juventus, but he failed to connect. With 12 minutes remaining, he left a defender on the floor with a feint before forcing Victor to block at his near post.

And that was as close as he came. Although some way from his vintage – he turns 38 in two weeks – Ronaldo appeared already the darling of the 22,862 watching on and plausibly the many million tuning in from afar.

Surprisingly, Mrsool Park was a little short of capacity, and Ronaldo was someway lacking of his burning-ember best, but you imagine there will be time for that.

In the end, Nassr went back to the top of the table. They remain in pole for a first top-flight title in four years. Brought by huge expense and the promise to send Saudi football stratospheric, Ronaldo should have more memorable nights than this.

Updated: January 23, 2023, 12:10 PM
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