Eyebrows were certainly raised in January 2023 when Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the greatest footballers of all time, traded the lofty heights of European football for the newly emerging Saudi Pro League, ending an unsuccessful second stint with Manchester United to sign with Al-Nassr FC.
Fans thought his career was done, and his transfer to the Arabian Peninsula was Ronaldo’s admission of that; aged 38, Ronaldo’s still leading the line for club and country and scoring crucial goals for his side, eyeing more major trophies with Al-Nassr FC as the interest in the Saudi Pro League grows with each passing game.
And now, following his professional rival Lionel Messi’s unveiling as the latest star player to join the MLS, in front of a sell-out stadium of 65,000 fans on Monday, Cristiano Ronaldo has made the bold claim that the quality of the Saudi Pro League is far superior. “[The] Saudi league is better than MLS,” said the five-time Ballon d’Or winner.
“I’m 100% sure I won’t return to any European club. I opened the way to Saudi league… and now all the players are coming here”.Cristiano Ronaldo
Ronaldo’s claims aren’t entirely inaccurate. After his decision to switch Europe for Saudi Arabia at the beginning of this year, Ronaldo has paved the way for more and more players to join Saudi Arabia’s top five clubs during this transfer window. Kalidou Koulibaly, Ruben Neves and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic have signed with Al-Hilal; N’Golo Kante, Karim Benzema and Jota have joined the Saudi Pro League champions, Al-Ittihad; and Eduord Mendy and Roberto Firmino have both traded the Premier League for Al-Ahli.
“My decision to join Saudi clubs was 100% crucial to bring in new top players. It’s a fact,” Ronaldo claimed. “When I joined Juventus, Serie A was dead and then after I signed… it was revived. Wherever Cristiano goes he generates higher interest.”
The Saudi Pro League will undoubtedly grow exponentially due to the so-called ‘Ronaldo Effect’; such is the unparalleled star power of the Portuguese forward that more and more players will consider the league to be a legitimate move, bringing fans of some of the world’s best players over to Saudi Arabian football.
In January alone, Al-Nassr’s Instagram following exploded overnight, jumping from around 860,000 followers before the legendary forward signed – their current total sits at 15.7 million followers. Not only that, but interactions across social media sky-rocketed to 150 million in a month, following the transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo, putting the Saudi club as the fourth ‘most popular’ sports team in the world ahead of Manchester United, Manchester City and Golden State Warriors.
Conversely, Lionel Messi’s transfer to MLS and David Beckham’s newly-formed Inter Miami side has had similar results, with Miami’s Instagram following growing from 1 million to now almost 10 million in just over a week.
The star power of these two titans of football is undeniable, and whilst they may not compete against each other during the famous El Clásico fixture anymore, the GOAT debate will never die. It remains to be seen which player will win the final battle of the leagues, but it seems Cristiano Ronaldo and the Saudi Pro League take a slender lead heading into half-time.