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Ronaldo’s signing goes beyond money for Saudi Arabia

Increased revenue is likely to come from Al Nassr shirt sales Reuters/Mohammed Benmansour
Increased revenue is likely to come from Al Nassr shirt sales
  • Portuguese forward set to be paid $200m a year at Al Nassr
  • Move brings image, reputational, branding and soft power benefits
  • Kingdom may ponder joint bid for 2030 World Cup

Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Al Nassr “is less about money and more about the Saudi Arabian geopolitical economy”, says a leading sports academic.

The 37-year-old forward agreed to join the Saudi Pro League last week in a deal that will run until 2025 and is expected to earn him over $200 million a year.

It makes the former Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus player the highest-paid athlete in the world, according to the latest edition of the Forbes Rich List. He overtakes Lionel Messi, who recently won the World Cup in Qatar with Argentina, and basketball star LeBron James.

Fans of Al Nassr have flocked to get their hands on the iconic No 7 shirt to be worn by Ronaldo since the news broke on Friday.

Research from found that Ronaldo’s shirt sales raised £187 million ($226 million) in 10 days after he signed for his second spell with Manchester United – giving him the record for the fastest-selling shirt in Premier League history.

But Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School in Paris, said his latest move was about more than boosting the bank balances of both player and club.

“Signing a player of the Portuguese’s stature brings image, reputational, branding, and soft power benefits,” Chadwick said.

“In this context, money is not an issue. The returns to government in Riyadh are likely to be much more intangible, rendering traditional return-on-investment calculations irrelevant.”

In announcing the deal on Twitter, Al Nassr labelled the move “history in the making” and said the arrival of Ronaldo would “inspire our league, nation and future generations, boys and girls to be the best version of themselves”.

The move “serves multiple purposes,” Chadwick said.

“It draws attention to football in Saudi Arabia, which the country’s government has been keenly seeking to promote over the last five years. The authorities don’t just want clubs to compete with Asia’s best on the field, they also want them to be more commercially robust off it.

“Ronaldo’s signing will open up new commercial avenues for Al Nassr and possibly others in the league.”

The deal is the latest foray into football by Saudi Arabia, whose Public Investment Fund led a consortium in a £300 million ($363 million) takeover of English Premier League side Newcastle United in 2021.

Middle East involvement in football is nothing new. Premier League champions Manchester City are owned by Abu Dhabi United Group while French Ligue 1 winners Paris Saint-Germain are owned by Qatar. Aviation giants Emirates and Etihad have sponsorship deals with a number of top clubs.

However, Chadwick believes Saudi’s involvement will take the competition up a notch. “We know from other industrial sectors that Gulf nations are prone towards replicating one another’s activities, hence it is realistic to anticipate Saudi Arabian investments in football that are comparable with those that have already been made by Abu Dhabi and Qatar,” he said.

“Given the kingdom’s size relative to its two smaller neighbours, its investments are likely to dwarf [their] investments.”

Ronaldo joins a long list of international football stars to transfer to the Middle East, including former France and Chelsea defender Marcel Desailly, who had two seasons in Qatar with Al-Gharafa and Qatar SC, and the Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, who spent two seasons in the twilight of his career with Al-Ahli in 2003-05. 

Former Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro spent a season with Al Ahli and later became assistant coach from 2013 to 2014, before taking charge of Al Nassr for a short spell in the 2015-16 season. The late Diego Maradona was coach of Al Wasl and Fujairah.

Chadwick expects more big names to follow suit. “We should expect more of this in the future, with other established players heading to the Gulf.

“One senses that officials in Riyadh would like to see the country’s leading teams winning Fifa’s World Club Cup whilst also appearing in [the] global rankings of financial performance and brand value.”

Saudi Arabia will host the Asian Games in 2034 and the kingdom is also bidding to host a major women’s football tournament, the 2026 AFC Women’s Asian Cup.

Chadwick also believes the Al Nassr signing could see Ronaldo and Messi, who were long-time rivals while playing for Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively, team up to promote any potential bid by the kingdom to host the 2030 World Cup. Messi became a brand ambassador for Saudi Tourism last year.

Although no official announcement has been made, Saudi has been strongly linked to a joint bid with Egypt and Greece.

Sport’s contribution to Saudi GDP has grown from $2.4 billion in 2016 to $7 billion today.

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