Cristiano Ronaldo’s first season in Saudi Arabia ended with a whimper, but he may not be the last megastar to grace the oil-rich country.
Ronaldo’s lavish introduction in January contrasted with Al Nassr’s season finale when the Portuguese sat out a 3-0 triumph against Al Fateh.
Al Nassr finished second in the Saudi Pro League without a trophy, although they qualified for the Asian Champions League.
Moqbel Al-Zabni, editor-in-chief of the Saudi capital’s Al Riyadiah daily, called it a “disappointing season” for Riyadh despite Ronaldo’s 14 goals and five penalties.
“They needed at least one championship.”
Despite fan dissatisfaction, the 38-year-old is a marketing triumph for Saudi football and the kingdom, which is trying to attract tourism and investment.
The big oil exporter is close to signing a “huge” contract for Ronaldo’s former La Liga sparring rival Lionel Messi, the World Cup-winning Argentine legend.
Due to the Public Investment Fund’s money, which funded LIV Golf, Newcastle United’s acquisition, and Ronaldo’s signing, other prominent names have been connected to the Saudi Pro League.
Saudi Arabia, like Qatar, is mulling a tri-continental World Cup bid.
‘Fans want titles’
Saudi Arabia’s massive sports spending is often called “sportswashing” to distract from its human rights record.
Last year, the hardline kingdom killed 81 people in one day, outlawed homosexuality, and caused international outrage when journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Since landing in Riyadh with his model girlfriend Georgina Rodriguez, a bankable influencer with 49.5 million Instagram followers, and five children, Ronaldo has spoken nothing.
After dubbing the country “South Africa” when he arrived at Al Nassr, he endorsed the Saudi Pro League to become the greatest in the world last week.
“Step by step, I think this league will be a top-five league in the world,” he remarked.
Saudi football has never had such attention, even though it was evident the seasoned player could not win games alone.
Al Nassr’s Instagram and Twitter followers have grown from two million to 14 million.
Ronaldo has attracted many families and women, who were banned from sports stadiums until recently.
“Saudi football has become the talk of most international news agencies and media,” stated Al Riyadiah columnist Musaed Al-Abdali.
Egyptian sports expert Ahmed Afify blamed other players’ ailments, especially Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina, for Ronaldo’s trophyless season.
“He (Ronaldo) showed great commitment and did not act like a big star towards his team-mates,” Afify remarked.
“In many matches it was difficult to locate him on the field,” said sports journalist Hawass Al-Ayed.
Two weeks ago, Mubarak Al-Shehri criticized Ronaldo’s “bad and incomprehensible performance” after Al Nassr drew with Al Khaleej.
Ibrahim Al-Suwailem, a Saudi fan in white robes, questioned Ronaldo’s purchase.
“Ronaldo alone is not enough,” he remarked. “Is it worth this tremendous amount? It’s a publicity deal, but supporters want titles.”