Cristiano Ronaldo’s topsy-turvy Saudi sideshow upstaged by power of Nuno

<span>Photograph: Ahmed Yosri/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Ahmed Yosri/Reuters

When Saudi Arabia’s Al-Nassr announced the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo in late December, their Instagram following jumped from less than 1 million to almost 15 million. On the pitch, despite Ronaldo’s best efforts, the Riyadh club slipped from first when he arrived to finish second in May as Nuno Espírito Santo led Al-Ittihad to a first championship since 2009.

This move was always about much more than football but there was plenty of that to talk about. A first league title as a coach for the former Tottenham and Wolves manager means his Portuguese compatriot will have to wait until next season for the chance to add to the seven domestic championships won with Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus.

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That campaign may look very different and not just because the top tier will expand from 16 to 18 teams. More big names are on the way. Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Karim Benzema – as well as coaches such as José Mourinho and Zinedine Zidane – are all being linked with Saudi Arabia. Once such speculation would have been dismissed, but things have changed.

“To have such players come, then the Saudi players will see a different mindset and approach from the top stars in the way they prepare,” says Roel Coumans, coach of the Saudi league club Abha. “To come to Saudi and believe it is easy is a big mistake, the league is very strong and the standard is definitely improving.”

Ronaldo, who is reportedly being paid about £175m a year until June 2025, scored 14 goals in his 16 league games as Al-Nassr tried to keep pace with the relentless Al-Ittihad. While the performances of the 38-year-old could be described as good rather than great, compared with some foreign players in Asia – (Carlos Tevez described his time in Shanghai in 2017 as a “holiday” and certainly treated it as such) – Ronaldo’s commitment to the cause was there for all to see, as was his frustration with himself, teammates and even coaching staff when things were not going to plan.

A billboard welcomes Saudi football club Al-Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh.
A billboard welcomes Al-Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo in Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh. Photograph: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

“When you are that age and in this kind of shape then you will be an example to others,” Coumans said. “He has always had this kind of mentality and always wants to win.”

That did not always happen, though there were highlights. A delicious curling shot from the edge of the area to complete a fightback victory over Riyadh rivals Al-Shabab in May rolled back the years. There was also a rare free-kick success.

Despite such moments, Al-Nassr struggled to build momentum. Anderson Talisca was the leading goalscorer when Ronaldo arrived, an attacker who also wants the ball at all times. The Brazilian and the Portuguese never quite clicked and it was noticeable that when Ronaldo missed the last game of the season through injury, Talisca scored two and made one in a 3-0 win.

Others seemed to benefit. Abdulrahman Ghareeb noticeably improved alongside the five-time Ballon d’Or winner. “It is very difficult to play with a player of the talent and stature of Ronaldo,” the winger said. “It is not possible to predict what he will do in the match but I am happy to play with him and keen to learn and improve my level.”

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In April, Rudi Garcia, the coach, left after rumours of a row with Ronaldo and other players over tactics. In came Dinko Jelicic as interim coach but the Croat made little impact. There was turmoil behind the scenes, with reports of Musalli al-Muammar resigning as club president.

“We know how effective Ronaldo is but he is just one player,” said Jana Mohammed, an Al-Nassr fan. “If you check lots of fans’ opinions, they are not satisfied with the management, that is who we are annoyed with.”

Off the pitch, Al-Nassr became one of the most talked-about clubs in the world and their yellow and blue shirts are now familiar, especially as the league sold broadcasting rights to almost 40 territories.

Regardless of accusations of sportswashing, Saudi Arabia’s aim is to become a global sporting hub sooner rather than later with growing involvement in international football and other major events such as Formula One, golf and boxing.

In football, the 2027 Asian Cup is already confirmed, there is an official bid for the 2026 Women’s Asian Cup and there are reports of a World Cup bid coming soon, possibly along with Egypt and Greece.

“We have to choose the right time: 2030 or 2034?,” said Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, president of the Asian Football Confederation, in May. “If our chance of hosting the tournament is better in 2034, we are looking into that, and if our conditions in 2030 are better, why not?” Hosting rules would need to be changed for another Asian country to host in 2030, only two tournaments after Qatar 2022.

Ronaldo, with more than 560 million followers on Instagram, is another factor. Crotch-grabbing aside (an apparent reaction to rival fans shouting “Messi” at him as he left the field after a derby defeat in April, though Al-Nassr said it was a reaction to a groin injury), he has done and said the right things and been pictured participating in Saudi Arabian life with his Arabic-speaking children.

Reports in the Europe that he is unhappy in the country are confidently dismissed by club officials. His comments, first when on international duty in Portugal in March and then to Saudi television in May, that he believed the league could become one of the best five in the world may have raised European eyebrows but went down very well at home.

Whatever the international ranking, Al-Ittihad are the best domestically. Under Nuno, the Jeddah giants deserved a first title since 2009. Conceding 13 goals in 30 games and losing twice was impressive. As well as the tight defence, the Moroccan striker Abderrazak Hamdallah collected his third golden boot in the country with 21 goals.

“There are basic principles in my life that conflict does not solve problems so I deal peacefully with players,” said Nuno who instilled a new mental strength into a team that threw away a 16-point lead in the previous season. “If they did not believe in themselves then this title would have been impossible and it is the players who made it possible.”

Ronaldo could not quite make Al-Nassr’s dreams possible on the pitch but off it, he has taken the club’s profile as well as the league’s to a new level. He says he is not finished yet. “Next season will be even better.”