Cristiano Ronaldo has conceded his first season with Al Nassr did not live up to his expectations, but the Portuguese star confirmed he is happy in Saudi Arabia and vowed to come back stronger next year.
The former Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus forward, 38, joined the Riyadh club in late December on a two-and-a-half-year deal reportedly worth more than $200 million per year.
He went on to score 14 goals in 16 league matches, but still concluded the campaign without any silverware. Nassr, top of the Saudi Pro League when Ronaldo arrived in the kingdom, eventually finished second, five points off champions Al Ittihad. The season ended on Wednesday.
Nassr, seeking a first championship since 2019, also lost the Super Cup to Ittihad, while they exited the King's Cup at the semi-final stage to Al Wehda.
In an interview with the Saudi Pro League released on Thursday night – his first full interview since joining Nassr - Ronaldo said: “My expectation was a little bit different. To be honest, I expected to win something this year, but it not always should be the way we think or the way we want. Sometimes we need patience, consistency, and persistence to achieve the best things.
“We improved a lot. Let’s say in the last five or six months, the team has improved so much. Even the league; all the teams improved – and my team as well. It takes time sometimes, but if you believe and you think that’s your goal, everything is possible.
“I expected to win something this year, but we didn’t. But next year I am really positive and confident that things will change, and we go in a better way. So, let us believe that and work on that.”
Ronaldo, a five-time Ballon d’Or winner, believes nevertheless that he has had a positive influence on his teammates since arriving in January. He was made team captain from his league debut against Al Ettifaq on January 22.
“Of course, my teammates, they felt already the way I am – my discipline, my work ethic. It’s not by coincidence that I play at a high level for 20 years,” Ronaldo said.
“I think I help many, many other players, the way they see they see fitness. It’s a way of life, to play football. You have to be focused, you have to concentrate, and you have to be professional at least and to do it the best you can.”
One of the most recognisable athletes in the world, Ronaldo’s presence in the Saudi top-flight has garnered considerable attention. The Saudi Pro League says coverage of the competition is aired now by 48 platforms and TV broadcasters across more than 170 countries, and that match-day attendances have doubled.
“The league is very good, but I think we have many, many opportunities to still grow,” Ronaldo said. “The league is competitive. We have very good teams, very good Arab players.
“But they need to improve a little bit more the infrastructure. Even the referees, the VAR system, should be a little bit quicker. I think other small things they need to improve.
“But I am happy here, I want to continue here, I will continue here. And, in my opinion, if they continue to do the work that they want to do here, in the next five years, I think the Saudi league can be a top-five [league] in the world.”
Asked what has represented his biggest challenge since moving to the Saudi Pro League, Ronaldo said: “One example is in Europe we train more in the morning, but here we train in the afternoon, or evening. And in Ramadan we train at 10pm at night - so this is so strange. But as I tell you these situations are part of an experience, memories.
“I like to live these moments because you learn with these things. It is difficult, but it is nothing I have not seen before. My experience so far is that Saudi fans they really love football and like to live the life. It is good and I am so happy until now.”
Ronaldo’s move to Saudi is expected to pave the way for other prominent players to follow, with the kingdom set to welcome a number of high-profile footballers to its top tier this summer.
Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema has received a lucrative offer from Saudi, with the final round of the 2022/23 La Liga season this weekend possibly his last match for the Spanish club. Benzema, the 2022 Ballon d'Or winner, joined Madrid in 2009.
Meanwhile, Lionel Messi appears poised to move to Saudi, with 18-time champions Al Hilal, once his contract expires at Paris Saint-Germain.
As to what he would say to prospective players considering of continuing their careers in Saudi, Ronaldo said: “If they are coming, big players and big names, young players, ‘old players’, they are very welcome. Because if that happens, the league will improve.”
Closing with a message to his fans, Ronaldo said: "Thank you very much for supporting me every day here, not only in the games or in the stadium, but of course, outside in the streets and the places that I go.
"And I will be part of your world, your culture, I will be here - I hope I make the people enjoy through my games, my performance. And to win things. "But again, thank you for welcoming me, and I will try to give my best during the time that I will be here."