It’s fair to say there were a few eyebrows raised when it was announced that Cristiano Ronaldo would be blazing the trail in Saudi Arabia, joining one of the four state-led teams in the Saudi Pro League on mouthwatering money. But now, as Ronaldo lifts his first trophy with his new side, everyone’s saying the same thing.
Cristiano Ronaldo has been making a lot of headlines since trading in European football for the Middle East; mistaking the Gulf for South Africa during his first press conference, getting in trouble over his obscene on-pitch gesture and even throwing shade on his perennial rival Lionel Messi and the quality of the MLS.
Ronaldo scored two goals in a thrilling 2-1 encounter between Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal, leading his team, down to 9 men, to the 2023 Arab Champions Cup and the first trophy of his Saudi career.
After captaining the side, Ronaldo entered the King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh carrying the coveted trophy; the sleek golden prize finished with a shiny football on top is undoubtedly an iconic design… but only because it’s a shameless like-for-like replica of the FIFA World Cup trophy.
And just eight months on from Argentina’s greatest night, when Lionel Messi’s brace buried France to lift the FIFA World Cup – the trophy that had evaded him throughout his illustrious career – the similarities between the two trophies only serve to highlight the differences between these two iconic players, and the seemingly opposite directions their careers have gone over the last 12 months.
Any move to the Saudi Pro League was bound to draw criticism for one of the greatest to have ever played the game. Such is Ronaldo’s enduring legacy that his career is followed closely by millions of people all over the world, and, whether rightly or wrongly, the reputation of the Saudi League is certainly not at the lofty heights of European football.
With Ronaldo’s transfer, however, this is something he’s determined to change, and you only have to look at the 2023 Arab Champions Cup starting line-ups to see just how much of an influence Ronaldo’s transfer has had on this region.
Since the Portuguese forward moved to Al-Nassr in January 2023, more and more of the world’s biggest names have followed suit, trading in the pedigree of Europe’s top clubs to pioneer a new wave of footballers playing for one of Saudi’s state-owned sides.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Sadio Mané, Talisca, Brozović, Alex Telles, Ruben Neves, Kalidou Koulibaly, Sergej Milinković-Savić and Malcom, all players who have signed from some of the biggest clubs in the world, are now plying their trade in the newly-emerged Saudi League, and starring in the final of the region’s premier competition – you’d certainly be forgiven for mistaking this for a UEFA Champions League tie.
With the seemingly unlimited spending power of the Saudi Pro League, the prospect of joining one of the top clubs in the region will become an increasingly more appealing option. And should Ronaldo’s influence continue to bring more of the world’s best players across to play in the region, this year’s Arab Champions Cup win could easily become one of the most celebrated of his enduring career.