RIYADH (AFP) – Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo was greeted by thousands of adoring fans in Riyadh yesterday after quitting top-level football for a lucrative spell at Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr.
The 37-year-old, who won the Ballon d’Or five times and whose great rivalry with Lionel Messi dominated world football for well over a decade, will be paraded at his new club’s Mrsool Park stadium after jetting in with his entourage late on Monday.
Ronaldo signed his estimated EUR200 million deal to June 2025 just weeks after his departure from Manchester United, following a TV interview where he slammed the club and coach Erik ten Hag.
Al Nassr, the nine-time Saudi league champions, represent a downgrade for the Portuguese forward who spearheaded title-laden campaigns with United, Real Madrid and Juventus.
“See you soon, Nassr fans,” Ronaldo said on the plane, in a video posted on Al Nassr’s Instagram account.
Ronaldo arrives just weeks after the World Cup in neighbouring Qatar, and as Saudi Arabia considers a joint Asia-Africa-Europe bid to host football’s biggest tournament with Egypt and Greece.
Thousands of fans are expected to pack the 25,000-capacity Mrsool Park after the club received more than 130,000 requests for tickets for the unveiling, priced at SAR15 (USD4) with revenues going to charity.
On a cool, wet day in the desert country’s capital, billboards saying “Hala (welcome) Ronaldo,” and picturing the player in Al Nassr’s blue-and-yellow kit, decorated major routes.
Police cars and checkpoints guarded the airport when Ronaldo arrived in the late evening before being taken to a five-star hotel in the city centre.
“He brought a big team of assistants and even a private security firm,” said a club official who asked to remain anonymous.
Excitement is high over the arrival of Ronaldo, the most high-profile player to come to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf or any country in the Asian confederation.
Fans queued down the street to buy Ronaldo’s Al Nassr shirt, with his trademark number seven, and Al Nassr’s Instagram page gained millions of new followers after his signing was made public.
“Asia has never seen anything like this,” said a column in United Arab Emirates newspaper Gulf News. “Wherever he goes, he is guaranteed attention and if just 10 per cent of his followers take an interest in his latest move the Saudi Pro League will become one of the most watched in world football,” it added.