RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Cristiano Ronaldo‘s future is the subject of intense speculation following Manchester United‘s decision to cancel the 37-year-old’s contract last month. It means that the former Real Madrid and Juventus forward is now available to sign for any club as a free agent, but despite his incredible track record and status as a global superstar, sources have told ESPN that there is a lack of interest in the Portugal captain from major clubs in Europe.
The Saudi Arabian team Al-Nassr FC has emerged as a suitor, prepared to pay Ronaldo a reported £200 million a year to move to the Saudi Pro League. But how likely is it that Ronaldo will leave European club football to play out his career in the Middle East? And what would the experience be like in Saudi Arabia?
ESPN went to Riyadh to find out.
Is there a Saudi Arabia league? How many teams? When do they play?
The Saudi Pro League is a 16-team competition, known as the Roshn Saudi League (RSL) for sponsorship reasons. It became fully professional in 2007, with league football initially beginning in 1976 with eight teams. From the 2023-24 season, the RSL will be expanded to an 18-team league. The Saudi League also follows the same match pattern as European leagues, with midweek and weekend fixtures, and runs from August through to May.
The top four teams qualify for the Asian Champions League: Saudi champions Al Hilal are the reigning Asian champions and are the competition’s most successful club, with four titles — one ahead of South Korea‘s Pohang Steelers. The top two teams in the RSL qualify for the Asian Champions League, with the third spot going to the King’s Cup (the oldest domestic cup competition) winner and a playoff for the final berth.
Is Al-Nassr FC, the club linked to Ronaldo, the league’s biggest team?
No. The biggest and most successful team in Saudi Arabia are Al Hilal, based in the capital, Riyadh. Al Hilal has won 18 league titles and finished as runner-up on 15 occasions. They are also the reigning Asian champions. Al-Nassr, also based in Riyadh, and Al-Ittihad (based in Jeddah) are the two teams vying to be regarded as Al Hilal’s biggest rivals.
Al-Nassr have won nine league titles, last claiming one in 2018-19, while Al-Ittihad’s most recent — their eighth overall — came in 2008-09. Yet nobody can compete with Al Hilal right now. They play at the 67,000-capacity King Fahd Stadium, while Al-Nassr’s Mrsool Park only holds 25,000 spectators. But while Al Hilal do attract full attendances for some games at King Fahd, their friendly against Saudi-owned Newcastle United on Thursday at the 22,000-capacity Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium was less than half full, despite all tickets for the game reported to have been sold.
Ronaldo may have to adjust to a different kind of playing experience, in front of some full stadiums and some that have plenty of empty seats. Or, perhaps, he will be the big attraction that ensures capacity crowds wherever he plays in the kingdom.
Earlier this year it was announced that Al Hilal and Al-Nassr will move to a new 40,000-capacity stadium. A new development on the outskirts of Riyadh called the Qiddiya Project — a sporting “city” that will also involve the construction of a Formula One race-track — includes plans to build the Qiddiya Clifftop Stadium, which the two teams will share.
The Qiddiya Project is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 initiative, which aims to transform Saudi society by the end of this decade.
Who is the highest paid player in the league?
The salaries of sporting figures in Saudi Arabia are not made public, but sources have told ESPN that Al Hilal and Al-Nassr pay the highest salaries, with former Manchester United forward Odion Ighalo reportedly earning £250,000 per week at Al Hilal. Ighalo, 33, earned £150,000 per week at United during a loan spell from Shanghai Shenhua — half his weekly wage at the Chinese team — but the Nigeria international earned £30,000 per week between 2014 and 2017 with Watford, a salary much more reflective of his status throughout his career.
Sources have said that the reason why all of the Saudi Arabia squad during the 2022 World Cup plays their club football in Saudi is because they are not only highly paid, they are also given homes in exclusive housing compounds as part of their contracts. According to the source, the players are “treated like rock stars.”
Another source told ESPN that Saudi players earn money comparable to the salaries paid by Premier League clubs, with no personal income tax obligations in the country. By contrast, in the United Kingdom, earnings above £125,000 per year are taxed at a rate of 40%.
How do the clubs earn their revenue?
The RPL’s broadcasting deal with the Saudi Sports Company was agreed earlier this year at a figure of 300 million Saudi Riyal a year ($80m). The deal runs for three years, with the TV revenue split evenly between the 16 clubs. In August, Roshn, a real estate developer, agreed a five-year deal worth 478 million Riyal (£105m / $127m) for naming rights to the Saudi Pro League. Clubs also earn money from a streaming deal with the Dubai-based company Shahid.
Saudi Telecom and Mobily, a Saudi Arabian telecommunications company, have agreed lucrative club sponsorships in recent years. Al Hilal’s shirt sponsor is Kingdom Holding Company, a Saudi conglomerate worth £10.5 billion ($12.9 billion), while Etihad Airways — the Abu Dhabi flag carrier — sponsor Al-Nassr. While Al Hilal, Al-Nassr and Al-Ittihad are all centrally owned by the Saudi Ministry of Sport, they’re run independently and individually benefit from wealthy donors, including the Saudi royal family.
Gab Marcotti details why he thinks a proposed move to Al Nassr for Cristiano Ronaldo is complete nonsense.
How competitive is the league?
The Saudi Pro League is one of the most competitive in the region and possibly across Asia as well, due to the wealth of the competition and depth of squads. Over the last 10 years, the league crowned five different champions (Al Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al Fateh, Al-Shabab, Al-Ahli). Each team is allowed up to eight international players, taking the total of foreigners this year to 128 from 48 different nationalities across the world. And the league also attracts high-profile coaches, with former Porto and Wolves coach Nuno Espirito Santo appointed as coach of Al-Ittihad and Rudi Garcia, the former Roma, Marseille and Lyon coach, taking charge of Al-Nassr. Ramon Diaz, the former River Plate coach, is the manager at Al Hilal.
Who are the most famous players to compete in Saudi Arabia before Ronaldo?
The Saudi Pro League is arguably still waiting for its first genuine superstar, but it has been able to attract some respected names. Aside from former United striker Ighalo, who joined Al Hilal from Al-Shabab earlier this year, players like former Argentina midfielder Ever Banega (Al-Shabab), Brazilian midfielder Paulinho (Al-Fayha), ex-Porto striker Moussa Marega (Al Hilal) and former Arsenal and Napoli goalkeeper David Ospina (Al-Nassr) all play in Saudi Arabia.
In short, Ronaldo would be the biggest name ever to play in the Saudi Pro League if he moved to Al-Nassr.
So why would Ronaldo go to Saudi Arabia?
It arguably wouldn’t be for the football challenge given that Ronaldo has previously played in the Premier League, Spanish LaLiga and Italy‘s Serie A, though he might be motivated by the prospect helping Al-Nassr halt Al Hilal’s dominance. If Ronaldo was to move there, Al Hilal would seem to be the more obvious destination: He would get to play in the Asian Champions League with a chance of winning it.
Money would be an obvious motivation, too, even for a player of Ronaldo’s wealth and success, but there is also the added element in Saudi Arabia’s desire to host the 2030 World Cup. While the kingdom has yet to formally launch a bid, sources have told ESPN that is likely to happen in early 2023; who better to raise the profile of Saudi Arabian football than one of the two most recognisable footballers on the planet?
Saudi Arabia already has Lionel Messi fronting its tourism campaign, so if Ronaldo can be lured to the Saudi Pro League, they would have a very visible face to promote their 2030 bid.