After his fall out with Manchester United, and his World Cup ending in tears, Cristiano Ronaldo announced his transfer to the Saudi Arabian side Al Nassr on the penultimate day of 2022. Ronaldo’s deal for two and a half years will earn him an estimated 200 million euros per year – the highest annual salary in the history of football. His contract marks the end of his time atop the most competitive European leagues, including the infamous Champions League, of which he won five. Ronaldo stated in his Al Nassr press conference that his work in Europe is over, bringing not just sadness but also disbelief to football fans across the world. Why did Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the best of his generation, sign such an exorbitantly lucrative deal to play in Saudi Arabia, a nation not known for its football prowess?
It’s no secret that the money Al Nassr offered was a considerable factor in Ronaldo’s decision; the largest annual salary in football is hard to turn down. Ronaldo is in the twilight of his football career, meaning the end of his time to earn that level of money for himself, his family, or his charitable contributions. Ronaldo’s tenure with European clubs was also coming to a clear end. His relationship with Manchester United had severely deteriorated and no top European club was willing to give that sum of money to pay a 37 year old . Ronaldo himself justifies the transfer by stating that football is evolving and spreading beyond its traditional powers. He mentions teams that performed surprisingly well during the World Cup to prove his point, including Saudi Arabia with their win over the eventual champions, Argentina.
Why did Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the best of his generation, sign such an exorbitantly lucrative deal to play in Saudi Arabia, a nation not known for its football prowess?
Ronaldo was driven by financial incentive, the impracticality of continuing in Europe, and the challenge of competition in Saudi Arabia. But why did Al Nassr want to add the aging star that European clubs refused to pay?
Ronaldo’s contract was intended to amplify the presence and reputation of Al Nassr, the Saudi Pro League, and the nation of Saudi Arabia at large. Al Nassr’s instagram page, for example, rocketed from less than one million followers to 11 million followers after Ronaldo’s addition. Media coverage will intensify again for Ronaldo’s debut in Riyadh this Thursday. Ronaldo is set to lead a composite team of players from Al Nassr and Al Hilal, the winners of the Asian Champions League, against Lionel Messi’s Paris Saint-Germain. Ronaldo and Messi were the two best players of their generation for two decades in Europe. The probable final confrontation between the rivals will be a historic match to which an astonishing two million individuals requested tickets. The match will immediately garner significant attention for Al Nassr and Saudi Arabian football.
Al Nassr stated that they signed Ronaldo to ameliorate the quality of the club, but also for the league, the country, and future generations to be “the best versions of themselves.” The goal in bringing Ronaldo to Saudi Arabia goes well beyond football at the club level. Indeed, Saudi Arabia, along with Greece and Egypt, have submitted a joint bid to host the 2030 World Cup. There were rumors that some of the revenue from Ronaldo’s contract would come from him acting as an ambassador for Saudi Arabia to host the event. Al Nassr denied these statements, mentioning that Ronaldo was only focused on helping the team win.
The goal in bringing Ronaldo to Saudi Arabia goes well beyond football at the club level.
Speaking beyond football, the nation of Saudi Arabia wants to use Ronaldo to give themselves the stage to project the new innovative change their nation is undertaking. Ronaldo’s signing is critically linked with Saudi Vision 2030, a plan to create a sustainable nation by improving the government, the economy, and the society. Saudi Arabia has long aimed to reduce its dependence on oil and pivot to other sources of revenue, like tourism and sports. Saudi Arabia’s purchase of Newcastle in 2021 and their present World Cup bid illustrate that football is becoming Saudi’s novel source of income and positive international attention. This mirrors the steps of their neighbor, Qatar, who bought Paris Saint-Germain in 2011 and hosted the 2022 World Cup. Ronaldo’s contract with Al Nassr, the current hosting of the Spanish Super Cup, and Messi’s recent agreement to promote Saudi Arabia all demonstrate Saudi Arabia’s evolving interest in football. It also increases their chance to win the 2030 World Cup bid.
Saudi Arabia opened cinemas after having banned them for 30 years, established the region’s largest music festival, and was part of the Formula 1 calendar, hosting a Grand Prix for the first time in 2021. All of these actions aim to attract visitors to their country and highlight their modernized and forward-looking nation for the world to see. Saudi Arabia’s government, by contrast, has come under fire for oppressive social laws and the 2018 assassination of Jamal Kashoggi, a US journalist and critic of the Saudi Arabian government who was assassinated in the Saudi Arabian consulate of Istanbul. Cristiano Ronaldo’s signature to Al Nassr might be understood as a marketing tactic aimed to exhibit an image of a nation that is, by contrast, convivial and affluent. A football superstar symbolizes wealth and entertainment value, images that Saudi Arabia wishes to project. The hope is that Ronaldo and the World Cup will attract foreign investment, bring a diversified economy, and allow Saudi Arabia to showcase a positive image of their country.
There will always be debate and speculation when talents in Europe leave to play football in other parts of the world, whether it’s China, Qatar, the United States, or Saudi Arabia. Cristiano is getting old and approaching his final years of football, preventing him from signing with the top European clubs he once dominated. His move to Al Nassr shines the spotlight on Saudi Arabia and furthers Saudi Vision 2030. Saudi Arabia is a key contender to host the 2030 World Cup. Whether or not Ronaldo is compensated for being an ambassador, his move to Al Nassr helps Saudi Arabia with both its bid and its broader societal goals.