Having lit up the top leagues in England, Spain, Italy and, briefly, in his native Portugal, Cristiano Ronaldo took the decision in late 2022 to become the first of what would become a litany of big names to join the Saudi Pro League. When his dissatisfaction became clear during his second stint at Manchester United, many pundits and experts began to predict where CR7 would move next; few, if any, saw him pulling on the yellow and blue of Al Nassr. So it seems reasonable to ask the question: Why did one of the best players in living memory choose to join a club with little global profile?
Ronaldo himself was hardly quiet on what he deemed to be the decisive factors. Having won everything there was to win in Europe, now was the time to begin a new odyssey on another continent. He expressed a desire to build the profile of soccer in a relatively untapped market. All of that sounds perfectly reasonable – but was there more to his move than what Ronaldo claims? Let’s look at the facts.
With the Saudi Public Investment Fund having spent billions of dollars to acquire Premier League side Newcastle United, there is no doubt that there is an appetite for the sport in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Newcastle were one of the sides linked with a move for CR7 when he formalized his departure from Old Trafford. So yes, building that profile in the Gulf state makes some sense as a project. However, let’s pause for a moment. There are plenty of growth markets in world soccer, but perhaps only one which could pay one player $200million annually with a flat tax rate of 20%.
It may sound cynical, but there is usually a reason players choose one club over another when it comes to the crunch, and finance is often at least part of that reason. While the recent influx of fellow world stars including Jordan Henderson, Riyad Mahrez and Sadio Mane is testament to a raised profile for the Saudi Pro League, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Ronaldo had millions of reasons for being so enthusiastic about that project.
Zapping back to Ronaldo’s press conference on arriving at Al Nassr, the player stated that he had many offers to join clubs in Europe, Australia and the USA. Maybe that is the case, but the rumor mill in global soccer does not run quietly. When Messi was leaving PSG, we all knew about it. When Kylian Mbappe was even thinking about moving to Madrid, everyone was aware of it. When Ronaldo headed to the World Cup in November 2022, he did so as an unattached free agent. By the time Portugal were eliminated at the quarter-final stage, he was still available, and rumors as to his destination were strangely silent.
It is suggested that Ronaldo considered moves back to Real Madrid, or a career-capping move back to Sporting Lisbon, where he started his career but only played 25 games as a teenager. Newcastle, as previously mentioned, had been linked too. The president of Australia’s A-League very publicly indicated that efforts were afoot to lure the player Down Under. However, due perhaps in part to the controversy surrounding his departure from Manchester United, there has been no confirmation of concrete interest from the bigger clubs in Europe. Maybe a move to Saudi made all the more sense in that light.
When David Beckham departed Real Madrid for LA Galaxy in 2007, he became associated with US soccer in a way few foreign players ever have. He was a top European player with plenty still to offer, not the sort of washed-up journeyman that usually headed to the MLS. In the present day, he’s one of the true global stars of the game, having become that rare thing – a soccer player who the average American can name without blinking. Ronaldo isn’t the first European player to head to the Saudi Pro League, but he is without a doubt the first to do it while still seen as a decisive player.
Millions of dollars landing in his bank accounts every week may have made the decision easier, but the greater gain for Ronaldo may be becoming that public face of Saudi soccer. Could he one day take ownership of a club the way Beckham has in Miami? Possibly: Ronaldo has always been a player who takes his public reputation extremely seriously, and the credibility that he would gain by running a club of his own would appeal. But even stopping short of that, being the man who brought the Saudi Pro League to the masses wouldn’t be a bad way to crown a much-decorated career.
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