Ronaldo leads revolution in Asia football | Sunday Observer

Ronaldo leads revolution in Asia football

23 July, 2023
Cristiano Ronaldo played his first game for Al-Nassr in January
Cristiano Ronaldo played his first game for Al-Nassr in January

English Premier League teams may be struggling to come to terms with Saudi Arabian clubs moving for some of their biggest names but fans in Riyadh, Jeddah and many other big cities of the Middle East and Asia are also having to adjust to football’s new reality.

Since Cristiano Ronaldo signed for Al-Nassr - one of the ‘Big Four’ clubs along with bitter Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal and Jeddah giants Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli - in December, the country has been in the international football spotlight and the club’s yellow shirt is an increasingly familiar sight in Europe and beyond.

“Watching ‘The Yellow’ spreading across the world is so satisfying and pleasing to me but I also feel loyal to the local league,” Nassr fan Jana Mohammed tells BBC Sport.

“Seeing player after player agreeing to sign with any Saudi team makes me more excited. It’s really thrilling to witness such quality in our league.”

Talents such as N’Golo Kante, Karim Benzema and Jota have joined champions Ittihad to work with coach Nuno Espirito Santo.

Hilal, the 18-time title winners, made bids for Lionel Messi and Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic and have signed Kalidou Koulibaly, Ruben Neves and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.

Meanwhile, Roberto Firmino and Edouard Mendy left the Premier League to become Al-Ahli players, with Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez set to join them soon.

Expectations are building before the new season starts in August.

“It is clear that the new football season will be a strong one with a lot of big football names that will undoubtedly be great additions,” adds Al-Hilal fan Ayman Al-Hatami. “As for Al-Hilal, we are satisfied with our new signings as we aspire to be stronger and achieve a better position. As usual, we are the first candidate for every championship.”

Ronaldo has talked up the potential of the Saudi Pro League to become one of the top-five competitions in the world and, while that is debatable, there is little doubt that in terms of profile it is the biggest in the Middle East and Asia.

“Europe lost a lot of quality,” the Portugal captain said recently.

“The only one that is one of the best is the Premier League; the Spanish league lost its level, the Portuguese one is not ‘top’, the German one also lost a lot of quality.

“The Saudi championship is much better than the USA. In one year, more and more top players will come to Saudi. In a year the Saudi league will overtake the Turkish league and Dutch league.”

The big four Saudi Arabian teams, who were taken over in June by the country’s Public Investment Fund, have long had financial strength in regional and continental terms.

Now all 18 teams in the top tier, newly expanded from 16, have the ability to rival any in the Arab world.

Former Rangers and Aston Villa manager Steven Gerrard has taken over mid-ranking team Ettifaq, who have been linked with another Liverpool legend in captain Jordan Henderson and are reportedly ready to make him one of the best-paid players in the world. If they are able to offer a package so attractive that it lures Liverpool’s captain from Anfield, it is a stark reality for others in the Middle East and North Africa region. Storied clubs such as Al-Ahly and Zamalek of Egypt, with 16 continental championships between them, Wydad Casablanca in Morocco as well as Tunisian and Algerian clubs have massive support.

But they are increasingly losing big names to Saudi Arabia, with Egypt players Ahmed Hegazi and Tarek Hamed moving to Al-Ittihad.

Even the region’s biggest stars such as Algeria’s Mahrez and Morocco’s Hakim Ziyech have been closely linked with Saudi moves.

Teams in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have signed big-name players in the past but do not have the fan bases of their big Saudi rivals or the same strength in depth.

(BBC sport)