After lighting up football’s biggest stages, Cristiano Ronaldo faces a very different reality in Saudi Arabia with smaller stadiums and less exalted teams — and some very high temperatures.
Ronaldo, 37, says he’s embracing the “challenge” of the Saudi Pro League, a step into the unknown for a player who is more used to Real Madrid’s heaving Santiago Bernabeu stadium or the “Theatre of Dreams”, Manchester United’s Old Trafford.
The transition has been eased by the combined 400 million euros he’ll receive in wages from his new team, Al Nassr, and a separate payment to act as an ambassador for an expected Saudi World Cup bid, according to sources close to the club.
But it will be a big adjustment for the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, who will soon be running out at modest venues including the 6,000-seat Al Batin Stadium.
After an exhibition appearance against his great rival Lionel Messi’s Paris Saint-Germain in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Thursday, Ronaldo will make his Saudi Pro League debut for Al Nassr on Sunday.
The 16-team league will take Ronaldo from Dammam on the Gulf coast to Jeddah on the Red Sea, as well as desert-bound provincial cities such as Majma’ah and Hofuf, a hub for Saudi Arabia’s date industry.
– Chartered planes –
While Al Hilal and Al Ittihad, the giants of Saudi football, play in 62,000-capacity home grounds, a handful of Pro League teams have small venues for less than 10,000 fans, and some pitches are surrounded by running tracks.
“Sometimes the stadiums are not in the best condition,” Moqbel al-Zabni, editor-in-chief of the Al Riyadiah newspaper, told AFP, cautioning that empty seats are a common sight.
“The attendances that Ronaldo is used to will not exist. We are not used to seeing stadiums full to capacity,” he said.
Ronaldo’s home ground will be Al Nassr’s 25,000-capacity Mrsool Park, which lies on a university campus in Riyadh and was packed for his gala unveiling earlier this month.
Chartered planes will ferry the superstar and his team-mates to away games, club sources said, sparing him long coach trips through the desert landscape.
The Pro League season runs from August to May, avoiding the worst of the fierce summer heat when temperatures routinely top 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).
Even the evenings, when many games are played, can remain above 30C (86 Fahrenheit) in August and September, and from March until the end of the season.
“The weather will pose a challenge to Ronaldo… but I think he will adapt and excel,” said Saleh al-Khalif, Al-Riyadiah’s deputy editor-in-chief.
– ‘No walk in the park’ –
Saudi Arabia is a leading force in Asian football with six World Cup appearances, including a famous victory over Messi’s Argentina at the recent edition in Qatar.
Al Hilal and Al Ittihad have won six AFC Champions League titles between them. With Ronaldo, Al Nassr will have hopes of qualifying for this year’s competition and joining their great rivals as Asian champions.
Although the Pro League’s standards cannot match the heights of England, Spain and Italy, where Ronaldo has spent his career so far, it is a competitive division.
The Saudi league was launched in 1976 but in the 14 years since the Pro League became the top tier, there have been six different winners.
Khalif said the league’s “strength and diversity” were comparable to English football, insisting it would be no “walk in the park” for Ronaldo.
The Pro League is packed with 128 foreign players from 48 countries, with each team allowed to sign eight.
At Al Nassr, coached by Frenchman Rudi Garcia, Ronaldo’s team-mates include Colombia and ex-Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina and Brazilian midfielder Luis Gustavo, formerly of Bayern Munich.
Ronaldo’s first task will be to keep Al Nassr on top of the league and secure their first title in four years. But the other teams will be highly motivated to stop him.
“Ronaldo is a legend… and all teams will play to beat Ronaldo,” said Khalif.