Cristiano Ronaldo at Al Nassr: ‘Messi’ taunts and a Saudi legacy in the balance
The legacy of Cristiano Ronaldo’s first half-season in Saudi Arabia could be glory against the odds or a troublesome beginning akin to his latter days in the Premier League. One game tonight could decide which it is.
Ronaldo experienced a difficult end to 2022, with an undignified exit from Manchester United followed by an equally unceremonious departure from the quarter-finals of the World Cup after being demoted to a bit-part role for Portugal midway through the tournament.
But he started 2023 surrounded by the adoration of millions and celebrated like an eternal icon as he landed in Riyadh to join Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr. He might have left behind the Premier League and Champions Leaguewhere he broke record after record over nearly two decades, but in making the move to the Middle East, he was joining a club and a league in which he would be treated with the kind of respect reserved for royals in this part of the world.
Rejection, revenge and soft power: Inside Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr
Not since the arrival of Rivellino, who won a World Cup with Brazilat Al Hilal in 1978 has the Saudi capital seen such buzz. “Hala Ronaldo” billboards lined the roads as he was driven to his new home stadium, Mrsool Park, where 23,000 fans gathered to witness the unveiling of the five-time Ballon d’Or winner. Almost instantly, the club, whose biggest claim to fame had been playing at the inaugural Club World Cup in 2000, became known across the planet.
The club’s official video of Ronaldo’s presentation has been watched by millions around the world, while the number of followers of Al Nassr’s Instagram account has skyrocketed from 800,000 to more than 14 million in the three months since, dwarfing the 3.9 million that had previously made their eternal rivals Al Hilal the league’s most followed side on the platform.
It was not just on social media that Ronaldo made an impact. Al Nassr’s average home attendance grew from 16,700 in the first half of the season to a near-capacity 21,900, even as ticket prices almost tripled from SAR50 (£10.75) to SAR138. Across the league, each journey Ronaldo’s new side makes attracts roughly three times as many fans, with the average attendance for Al Nassr’s away games growing from 8,160 before his arrival to 23,240. Across the region, from Dubai on the Persian Gulf coast to Casablanca on the Atlantic Ocean, Al Nassr’s No 7 jersey has become a staple of every sportswear shop.
All sunshine and roses, then? Off the field, Al Nassr knew they had struck gold, but it has been a different story on the pitch. Fans across social media and many pundits predicted Ronaldo would dominate the Saudi Pro League. After all, it was only weeks earlier that he was turning out for one of the biggest clubs in the world, albeit with mixed performances.
It took Ronaldo 180 minutes to open his account in Saudi Arabia; a last-minute penalty in his second outing for the club. Fans were over the moon as he bagged all four in a 4-0 away thumping of minnows Al Wehda the following week and by the time three months had passed since his arrival, he had racked up 11 goals in 10 matches and one Saudi Pro League Player of the Month award. Look beyond the goals, however, and things weren’t going so well.
When Ronaldo made his debut for Al Nassr, managed by former Roma and Lyon boss Rudi Garcia, the club were three points clear at the top of the league table. But three draws and a defeat in their next 10 games has left them trailing Nuno Espirito Santo’s Al Ittihad by three points. Al Nassr had swapped Cameroon’s Vincent Aboubakar for one of the greatest players of all time, yet found themselves falling behind. Problems started to surface.
On more than one occasion, Ronaldo was left visibly angered as away fans chanted “Messi, Messi!” as he led his new team onto the pitch as captain or walked into the tunnel at full-time.
Measured against Lionel Messi throughout his career, you could tell by Ronaldo’s demeanour he was not expecting that sort of hostile reception when he swapped Europe for a league where he is by far the biggest attraction. His frustrations were exacerbated by many of his side’s fans considering Ronaldo to be only the second-most important player at the club.
Once a transfer target for Liverpool and Tottenham HotspurBrazilian forward Anderson Talisca had left Benfica for adventures in Turkey and China before joining Al Nassr in 2021. Opting to join them while spurning the advances of their more successful neighbours Al Hilal, Talisca earned instant hero status at Mrsool Park. He is the club’s top goalscorer this season, with 16.
Then came the managerial change. Even when the club was winning, Al Nassr fans complained of Garcia’s pragmatic setup. Now they were not winning as frequently and the tension made its way to the players; former Brazil and Bayern Munich midfielder Luiz Gustavo was seen in a heated exchange with his manager after the 2-2 draw against Al Fateh. Reports started to emerge that Ronaldo was unhappy with the Frenchman’s man-management, too.
Not one to shy away from pulling the trigger, the club’s chairman, Musalli Al Muammar, made Garcia his fifth sacking in two years last week. Garcia’s 286-day reign was the longest of them all.
Croatian Dinko Jelicic, the under-19s coach, was installed as interim manager. Former Wolverhampton Wanderers boss and Ronaldo’s compatriot Bruno Lage is widely reported to be the club’s managerial target for the summer, a choice that will probably have been sanctioned by the club’s new captain.
With seven league matches to go and the King Cup semi-final against Al Wehda to come next week, this could still be one of Al Nassr’s most successful seasons in recent memory. They are second in the table, three points behind Al Ittihad, while title holders Al Hilal, who Al Nassr face tonight, are down in fourth.
Al Hilal have set themselves apart as a continental powerhouse, reaching five AFC Champions League finals in the past eight years, including this year’s tournament, against Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds. Their first leg is next week. They also gave Chelsea and Real Madrid difficult moments in the last two editions of the Club World Cup, only losing to the Premier League side 1-0 in 2022 and exchanging blows with the Spanish club in a 5-3 defeat in the most recent final two months ago.
With a record-extending fifth continental title at stake later this month, Al Hilal have all but given up on defending their league title, having won it three times in a row. They now sit seven points behind Al Nassr and have even fielded a weakened side in their last two outings, but the chance to dash their rivals’ chances will be tempting.
For all the publicity he has brought to their club, Ronaldo’s true legacy at Al Nassr could hinge on whether he can step up and deliver the goods against the team in whose shadow they have lived for the best part of their 67 years of existence.
(Top photo: Yasser Bakhsh via Getty Images)
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