‘World will take note:’ Saudi fans on Ronaldo link to local club

The Portuguese superstar has reportedly received a tantalising offer from Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr club.

Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Round of 16 - Portugal v Switzerland - Lusail Stadium, Lusail, Qatar - December 6, 2022 Fans hold up a sign inside the stadium with a message welcoming Cristiano Ronaldo to Al-Nassr due to his prospective transfer REUTERS/John Sibley
Fans hold up a sign inside Lusail Stadium with a message welcoming Cristiano Ronaldo to Al-Nassr, the Saudi club he has been linked to, during Portugal's round-of-16 game against Switzerland at the 2022 World Cup on December 6 (John Sibley/REUTERS)

Doha, Qatar – Cristiano Ronaldo may have spent most of Portugal’s round-of-16 game against Switzerland on the bench, but his late introduction was greeted by deafening cheers from thousands of fans at Lusail Stadium on Tuesday night.

Many of them were not even Portuguese fans. Ronaldo is a massive crowd pull around the world, in leagues, exhibition matches and now at the World Cup. But while the 37-year-old is likely playing his last World Cup, fans in the Middle East might soon see him play locally again.

After being let go by Manchester United last month, Ronaldo has been linked to Al Nassr, a Saudi Pro League (SPL) club. While confirmation of a move is still pending – and is not likely to be announced until after the World Cup – Saudi football fans say they can’t wait to have the Portuguese legend in their midst.

“Who doesn’t want to see Ronaldo play live? I don’t support Al Nassr but I want him to come to Saudi Arabia,” Ibrahim Al Hassun, a Saudi football fan told Al Jazeera in Doha.

Ronaldo holds the record for most international goals (118) and is the most capped international player for Portugal with 195 appearances. Yet there’s a cloud over his future in Portugal’s national team.

He has scored one goal at the tournament so far and was dropped from the starting lineup for Portugal’s last game. His replacement, Goncalo Ramos, scored a hat-trick and is likely to start in the quarterfinal against Morocco on Saturday.

Al Nassr is the second-most successful club in the SPL, with nine titles to its name, and has reportedly offered Ronaldo a $225mn-a-year contract for three years.

Saudi fans are relishing the prospect of having one of football’s biggest names ply his trade in their country.

Cristiano Ronaldo #7 | Portugal v Switzerland, FIFA World Cup 2022, December 6, Lusail Stadium
Cristiano Ronaldo in action during Portugal’s round-of-16 game against Switzerland at the 2022 World Cup on December 6 at Lusail Stadium [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Al Hassun said the biggest impact of Ronaldo’s reported move will be in terms of the attention he will bring to Saudi football. “The whole world will take note of Saudi football – from the media to the fans around the world, and social media. It will be phenomenal.”

If it’s attention that Saudi fans are seeking, they have received plenty of it with their team’s performance at the World Cup. According to figures released by World Cup host broadcasters beIN, Saudi Arabia’s famous win over Argentina in their opening game of the World Cup attracted 99.3mn eyeballs, of which more than 80mn  were international viewers.

Muhammad, a Saudi fan from Riyadh, said the national team has improved by leaps and bounds since the last World Cup but the world only took notice when they beat Lionel Messi-led Argentina. According to Muhammad, Ronaldo’s presence will help local players grow and deal with the pressure of big games. “Ronaldo will make a lot of money from (playing in) our country, so we need to ensure our players make the most of his presence too,” he said.

While most names on the roster of SPL teams are local, international footballers have been playing in the country. Brazilian forward Anderson Talisca signed for Al Nassr last year, while Argentinian midfielder Ever Banega has been playing for Riyadh-based club Al Shabab since 2020.

Hassan Ali, a fan of Al-Ittehad FC in Jeddah, said that while the SPL has a great following within the country and the region, it largely goes unnoticed in other parts of the world due to a lack of international stars.

That could now change. “No matter what people say about his age and goal-scoring ability, Ronaldo will help put Saudi football on the world map,” said Ali.

Source: Al Jazeera