After lighting up soccer’s biggest stages, Cristiano Ronaldo faces a very different reality in Saudi Arabia with smaller stadiums and less-exalted teams – and some very hot temperatures.
Ronaldo, 37, says he accepts the “challenge” of the Saudi Pro League, a step into the unknown for a player more used to Real Madrid’s bustling Santiago Bernabeu or the “Theatre of Dreams” at Manchester’s Old Trafford United.
The transition has been facilitated by the A$310 million-a-year deal in which he will receive wages from his new club, Al Nasr, and a separate payment to act as an ambassador for an expected Saudi Arabia World Cup bid, according to people close to sources. at the club.
But it will be a big adjustment for the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, who will soon sell out modest venues, including the 6,000-seater Al Batin Stadium.
After an exhibition performance against Lionel Messi’s arch-rivals Paris Saint-Germain in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Thursday, Ronaldo will make his Saudi Arabian League debut for Al Nasr 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-linked provincial towns such as Majma’ah and Hofuf, a center for Saudi Arabia’s date industry .
While Al Hilal and Al Ittihad, the giants of Saudi football, play in stadiums with a capacity of 62,000, some Pro League teams have small venues for less than 10,000 fans and some stadiums are surrounded by tracks.
“Sometimes the pitches are not in the best condition,” Mokbel al-Zabni, editor-in-chief of Al Riyadiah newspaper, told AFP, warning that empty seats were a common sight.
“The presence that Ronaldo is used to will not be there. We are not used to seeing stadiums full.”
Ronaldo’s home ground will be Al Nassr’s 25,000-capacity Mrsool Park, which is on a campus in Riyadh and was packed for his gala unveiling earlier this month.
Chartered planes will take the superstar and his team-mates to away games, club sources said, sparing him long coach journeys across the desert landscape.
The Pro League season runs from August to May, avoiding the worst of the sweltering summer heat when temperatures typically exceed 40 degrees Celsius.
Even evenings, when many games are played, can remain above 30C in August and September and from March until the end of the season.
“The weather will be a challenge for Ronaldo… but I believe he will adapt and excel,” said Saleh al-Khalif, deputy editor-in-chief of Al-Riyadiah.
“NO WALK IN THE PARK”
Saudi Arabia are a leading force in Asian football 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 Nasr will have hopes of qualifying for this year’s competition and joining their arch-rivals as Asian champions.
Although the standards of the Pro League 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 started in 1976, but in the 14 years since the Pro League became the top division, there have been six different winners.
Khalif said the league’s “strength and diversity” was 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 able to sign eight.
At Al Nasr, coached by Frenchman Rudy Garcia, Ronaldo’s team-mates include Colombia and former Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina and Brazilian midfielder Luis Gustavo, formerly of Bayern Munich.
Ronaldo’s first task will be to keep Al Nasr at the top of the league and secure their first title in four years. But other teams will be highly motivated to stop him.