A year ago, Cristiano Ronaldo was ousted from European soccer. Manchester United released him from his contract just before the World Cup, following a controversial interview he gave to Piers Morgan, in which he claimed that the club had betrayed him. This led to a chorus of criticism from many pundits who believed it was time to part ways. Then came the World Cup snub and the tears after the elimination in the match against Morocco.
Reports circulated that he was offered to mid-tier clubs like Frankfurt in Germany, but they politely declined. Signing with Al-Nassr in Saudi Arabia was seen as a graceful exit. A ride into the sunset. Even the great Ronaldo, steps off the stage when tomatoes are thrown at him.
But kings don't leave quietly, and Ronaldo is the closest thing we've had to royalty in soccer since Pelé. No one can tell Cristiano that he's done; only he will decide. Less than a year has passed and tens of thousands of fans have gathered just to catch a glimpse of him, people broke into his hotel in the hope of snatching a selfie.
This happened in Iran, not in England, but what does it matter? The frenzy is the same. In late 2023, everyone still wants to see Ronaldo. His arrival with Al-Nassr, for an Asian Champions League game, set Tehran abuzz. Authorities even gave him and the other players, special SIM cards to document their visit on social media. Government officials flocked to him, and he was presented with a giant Persian carpet. Once again, Ronaldo received royal treatment; it's all he needs, to thrive.
In Saudi Arabia, Ronaldo gets everything he wants, but unlike some other veteran players, he gives back. Before he's a king, he's a soccer player who gives his all in every match. Whether it's the UEFA Champions League or its Asian counterpart, a remote pitch in Saudi Arabia or Old Trafford, Ronaldo gives it his all. This has led to a crazy start to the season with 10 goals and five assists in just seven league games.
Last Friday, he put on a display that was reminiscent of his prime, providing an assist and scoring a dramatic penalty in the 87th minute, to give Al-Nassr a 2-1 victory over Al-Tai. His Iconic celebrations (shouting "Siu") drew thousands of tweets from around the world in praise of him. Whether it's the Saudi league or not, Ronaldo shows week after week that he transcends soccer. Even when he scores in a friendly match in Fiji, he makes headlines.
The Saudis brought in Ronaldo to serve as the league's ambassador and judging by results to date, the hundreds of millions he receives were a very profitable deal. It's not just about the goals and numbers; it's about Ronaldo remaining Ronaldo. He is 100% committed to the project and praises the league everywhere.
"The Saudi league will be one of the top five in the world," he said last July. "European leagues are declining; they don't have the quality they once had. So, I have nothing to look for in Europe at my age. All the top European players will eventually come here," he said. And how can we forget the playful jab at Messi? "The Saudi league is better than the MLS."
Regardless of whether Ronaldo truly believes what he says or not, what matters most is his unwavering support for the Saudi League. He's the best soldier they have. Every chance he gets, he emphasizes that this is a very strong league, one that is only going to develop further. While Neymar and Karim Benzema are still adjusting, the Saudis are undoubtedly thrilled with their substantial investment.
"He brings amazing energy to every game and every practice," said his new coach, Luis Castro. "He's a role model because he has complete control over his body. He meticulously maintains his nutrition and sleep hours, and on the field, there are no limits to what he can do; he pushes himself forward all the time."
Apparently, the closeness to Ronaldo has revitalized Sadio Mane. The Senegalese striker arrived at Al-Nassr when his career was on a steep decline after a tough season at Bayern Munich, but alongside Ronaldo, he has scored six goals in eight games. "They're like brothers," said Mane's mother. Mane even adopted Ronaldo's iconic "Siu" celebration after a goal, and the two can be seen bonding in corners, laughing like high school boys.
Even in the national team, things are going Ronaldo's way. Fernando Santos, the manager who dared to bench him, was fired. The new manager, Roberto Martinez, kept him on the lineup, and Ronaldo reciprocated with a match-winning goal in the 89th minute against Iceland. Anyone fantasizing about a new era in the Portuguese national team can put that thought on hold for now.
"Selecting Ronaldo was a very easy decision for me," said Martinez. "It was clear to me that I wanted him to continue with the national team. He's the captain, a true leader, and he has experience that no one else in the world has. He serves as a role model for many players in the dressing room."
Ronaldo sees Euro 2024 on the horizon; he's been thinking about it since the defeat in the World Cup quarter-finals against Morocco because it's clear he won't retire from the national team like this. He'll be 39, and it might be his last Euro, It would be an incredible opportunity to retire from international stages on his terms.
He's already won one European Championship so he knows how it feels, and he certainly knows what needs to be done to lift the trophy. In the Euro, he'll have the opportunity to show the soccer world once again who the greatest of them all is, and for him, the answer is not Messi.