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Ronaldo will be first of many Saudi superstar signings

Ronaldo Saudi Reuters
"I'm grateful to Al Nassr for giving me this opportunity to develop football for the younger generation," Cristiano Ronaldo said

Cristiano Ronaldo was officially revealed as an Al Nassr player on Tuesday night amid a cacophony of noise and a sea of yellow and blue.

And as fans inside the 25,000-seater Mrsool Park chanted his name, Ben Gordon, a sports diplomacy expert at Dentons Global Advisors, said that Saudis should get set for more superstar players following suit.

Ronaldo 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, making him the highest paid football player in the world.

Speaking at a press conference, the former Manchester United, Juventus and Real Madrid player said: “I’m grateful to Al Nassr for giving me this opportunity to develop football for the younger generation, for the women as well. For me, it’s a challenge, but I also feel very happy and proud.

“I can say now, I had many opportunities in Europe, Brazil, Australia and the United States. Even in Portugal, many clubs tried to sign me, but I gave my word to this club, to develop not only football but also the other parts of this country.”

Al Nassr boasts influential stakeholders behind Saudi Arabia’s strategy to build the kingdom’s sports and entertainment industries. Club chairman Musalli Almuammar also serves as an advisor to Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority, while Al Nassr is sponsored by Qiddiya, the kingdom’s entertainment-focused giga-project.

Qiddiya Investment Company signed a 20-year partnership with Al Nassr and Al Hilal in February last year worth SAR100 million ($27 million) per club per year, making it the largest in the history of both sides and one of the largest in the region.

“Whether or not the government is paying for part of the deal, it will certainly be supportive of the global exposure that the Saudi sports landscape will receive as a result of it,” Gordon said.

“Speculation in the kingdom is that if the government is helping Al Nassr with a major deal like this, it is only logical that it would help other clubs attract stars in the future. We may see other Saudi clubs make bids for prominent players in the coming months and years.”

Ronaldo, 37, is joined at Al Nassr by, among others, former Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina, who made the move from Napoli in the summer, and ex-Bayern Munich midfielder Luiz Gustavo.

And striker Vincent Aboubakar, who scored the winner for Cameroon against Brazil at the recent World Cup in Qatar before being sent off, currently has four goals for the season.

“Noting that Ronaldo is not the first prominent international player to move to Saudi – just by far the biggest star – some in the kingdom are speculating that this could be only the beginning of a sustained investment to put Saudi football on the map globally,” Gordon added.

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, Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School in Paris, 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.”

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.

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