After lighting up football’s biggest stages, Cristiano Ronaldo faces a very different reality in Saudi Arabia with smaller stadiums and less prominent teams, and some very hot temperatures.
Ronaldo, 37, says he is accepting the “challenge” of the Saudi Pro League, a step into the unknown for a player more accustomed to Real Madrid’s packed Santiago Bernabeu stadium or the “Theater of Dreams,” the Manchester United’s Old Trafford.
The transition has been made easier by the combined €400m he will receive in salaries from his new team, Al Nassr, and a separate payment to act as ambassador for a long-awaited Saudi Arabian 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 at modest venues, including the 6,000-seat Al Batin Stadium.
Following an exhibition appearance against 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 provincial desert cities like Majma’ah and Hofuf, a center for Saudi Arabia’s date industry.
– Chartered aircraft –
While Al Hilal and Al Ittihad, the Saudi soccer giants, play in stadiums with a capacity of 62,000, some Pro League teams have small stadiums for fewer 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, warning that empty seats are common.
“The assistance that Ronaldo is used to is not going to exist. We are not used to seeing full stadiums,” he said.
Ronaldo’s home will be Al Nassr’s 25,000-capacity Mrsool Park, which sits on a university campus in Riyadh and was packed for its gala opening earlier this month.
The chartered planes will transport the superstar and his teammates to away games, club sources said, saving him lengthy coach journeys across the desert landscape.
The Pro League season runs from August to May, avoiding the worst of the ferocious summer heat, when temperatures routinely exceed 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).
Even nights when many games are played can stay above 86 Fahrenheit (30 C) in August and September, and from March until the end of the season.
“The weather will challenge Ronaldo… but I think he will adapt and excel,” said Saleh al-Khalif, deputy editor-in-chief of Al-Riyadiah.
– ‘Don’t walk in the park’ –
Saudi Arabia is a leading force in Asian soccer with six World Cup appearances, including a famous victory over Messi’s Argentina in 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 Pro League standards cannot match the heights of England, Spain and Italy, where Ronaldo has developed his career thus 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 level, there have been six different winners.
Khalif said the league’s “strength and diversity” were comparable to English football, insisting it would not be a “walk in the park” for Ronaldo.
The Pro League is packed with 128 foreign players from 48 countries, and each team can sign eight.
At Al Nassr, led by Frenchman Rudi Garcia, Ronaldo’s teammates include Colombian and former Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina and Brazilian midfielder Luis Gustavo, formerly of Bayern Munich.
Ronaldo’s first task will be to keep Al Nassr at the 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 every team will play to beat Ronaldo,” Khalif said.