Ronaldo v Benzema was perfect final flourish of transformative year for Saudi Pro League

In space of 12 months, kingdom has become magnet for famous players

Karim Benzema of Al Ittihad shakes hands with Cristiano Ronaldo of Al Nassr before Tuesday's game. Getty Images
Powered by automated translation

There are four footballers on earth still active as professionals who have won the Ballon d’Or. There is only one league on the planet where you can see two of them on the same pitch.

With that unique billing, the Saudi Pro League ushered out a calendar year in which the unprecedented and the inimitable have been standard setting.

As it turned out, Cristiano Ronaldo versus Karim Benzema, Ballon d’Or winners six times between them and Real Madrid colleagues through nine years and 342 matches in an era that celebrated the might and recruitment power of Madrid, had plenty of drama.

For Al Ittihad, Benzema gave away a penalty, one of two converted by Al Nassr’s Ronaldo; Fabinho was sent off, Sadio Mane and Abderrazak Hamdallah both netted a brace. It finished 5-2 in Jeddah, a snapshot 90 minutes of how stardom and imported talent are contributing to the spectacle of a league undergoing massive transformation.

In less than two weeks, Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and outsiders Osasuna will travel to Riyadh for the Spanish Super Cup, an event originally expanded and exported to Saudi Arabia four years ago, when the hosting of major international events there was less routine than it has become. Back in 2019, the likes of Barca and Madrid confidently imagined they were the most glamorous footballing attraction of a Saudi winter.

This year, they will think again. On Tuesday night, when Ronaldo’s Al Nassr beat Benzema’s Al Ittihad, the ebb and flow of the fixture was rather more compelling – Al Ittihad took the lead, lost it, equalised and lost it again – than, say, the final of the Club World Cup, won at a canter by Manchester City in the same city four days earlier. There’s a live thread of competition across those two fixtures, too, in that Ronaldo’s two goals edged him ahead of City’s Erling Haaland – at least overnight – in the race to be elite football’s leading goalscorer in 2023.

And so the story of the Pro League’s momentous year begins and ends with Ronaldo setting landmarks. He was the marquee signing whose arrival in January endorsed the prestige of Saudi Arabian club football for so many others who followed later.

Rewind 13 months and Ronaldo was at a crossroads in his garlanded career: He had fallen out badly with Manchester United, and been dropped from Portugal’s starting XI at the World Cup.

His rebound, in his 39th year, has been eye-catching, and for anybody who regards it mainly as an argument that standards are so much lower in the Pro League, defences easier to overcome than they were for him in La Liga, the Premier League or in Italy’s Serie A, it is worth noting that his relevance for Portugal has also returned to close to peak levels in the past 12 months.

Ten of those 53 Ronaldo goals for the calendar year have come from nine internationals, all of them with him fully restored to the starting XI of a national team that compiled an immaculate record in Euro 2024 qualifying.

If Ronaldo, who joined Al Nassr in January, was the pathfinder for the rise in global profile of the Pro League, money has been the galvaniser. Its clubs, principally those backed most heavily by the country’s Public Investment Fund – Al Nassr, Al Ittihad, Al Hilal and Al Ahli – outspent every major European league bar the English Premier League on transfer fees last summer.

The influence of the arriving stars is pronounced: Ronaldo is the league’s leading scorer so far this term, just ahead of the €50 million-plus Aleksandr Mitrovic, whose goals for Al Hilal have helped them lead a title race where champions Al Ittihad have slipped back. And not only domestically. Benzema and Co’s defeat to Al Nassr came soon after their loss to Cairo’s Al Ahly at the Club World Cup.

Al Hilal, meanwhile, have entered the second half of the season unbeaten, having dropped just four points, all without great use of their supposed trump card, Neymar. The Brazilian, lured from Paris Saint-Germain for a €90 million fee, suffered serious injury in October and may not see competitive action again until the middle of 2024.

In Neymar’s absence, the Saudi juggernaut moves on. The country was all but confirmed as host of the 2034 World Cup in the autumn, an event still distant on the horizon for Roberto Mancini, who gave up the job as manager of Italy’s reigning European champions to take over the Saudi national team.

Mancini views with a nuanced perspective the Pro League’s rising global reach. The stars from abroad have certainly boosted international interest but, to Mancini’s eye, the flood of incoming talent risks halting first-team opportunities for home-grown players.

Expect him to voice that concern out loud ahead of next month’s Asian Cup in Qatar, when expectation around the Green Falcons, the national team from the game’s new superpower league, will be higher than ever.

Updated: December 28, 2023, 8:22 AM