When Pelé came to join the New York Cosmos in the 1970s at the end of his career, he became by an order of magnitude the biggest star ever to play in North America. Now, Cristiano Ronaldo could be filling the same role in the Middle East.
Ronaldo, 37, one of the world’s best players for almost 20 years, has agreed to a two-year contract to play for al-Nassr, a team in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi-owned television channel Al Arabiya reported.
Although he is in the twilight of his career, the deal was variously reported as being between 150 million and 200 million euros ($214 million), meaning Ronaldo will enjoy a huge contract even as he leaves the more competitive world of European soccer behind.
There was no immediate confirmation from the team, its league or Ronaldo.
Ronaldo is generally considered to be, along with Lionel Messi, the greatest player of his generation. He has won the Ballon d’Or, the trophy for the world’s best player, five times, most recently in 2017. Only Messi, with seven, has more. Messi’s victory with Argentina this month in the World Cup in Qatar seemed to cement in many fans’ minds his spot at No. 1, with Ronaldo at No. 2.
Ronaldo has excelled at scoring goals for top European teams, including Sporting Lisbon, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus. But he wore out his welcome in his latest spell at Manchester United, leaving by mutual consent in November after a little more than a season. He had clashed with his manager, fumed over a lack of starts and showed reluctance to play pressing defense.
Such was his fame that even when he was on the bench he tended to capture the headlines rather than the United players who were making the passes and scoring the goals.
Ronaldo has also been the star of the Portuguese national team for years, leading it to a European championship in 2016. Earlier this month, the team lost to Morocco in a World Cup quarterfinal, and Ronaldo left the field in tears after what was almost certainly his last World Cup match. He was benched at that tournament, too, after appearing to pout about being substituted in a previous game.
His fame has transcended the game: He has more than 500 million Instagram followers, second only to Instagram’s own account.
Al-Nassr, based in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, is one of Saudi Arabia’s top teams, winning the league title as recently as 2019 and sitting second in the table this season. But like just about every team in the world, it stands several steps behind the giant European teams, like the ones Ronaldo has played for earlier in his career.
The team is sponsored by Qiddiya, a sports and entertainment company launched by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund in 2018 with a plan to build a huge complex outside Riyadh that would include a theme park, a Formula 1 track and a soccer stadium.
Major Saudi soccer clubs are ultimately owned by the state through the Ministry of Sports. Boards of the clubs and their finances must be approved by the ministry. The government has in the past said that it planned to privatize the clubs, but those plans have stalled.
Messi earlier this year signed a deal with the Saudi government to become a tourism ambassador for the kingdom. With Saudi Arabia keen on bidding for the 2030 World Cup, an event its neighbor and sometime rival Qatar just hosted, having both Ronaldo and Messi associated with its project would be seen as a major coup for its sports ambitions, already exhibited through the new LIV Golf tour.
Ahmed Al Omran contributed reporting from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.