RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — As Cristiano Ronaldo was quick to point out, he has spent his storied career playing for the “most important” clubs in Europe.
That also meant playing in the most popular leagues in the world in England, Spain and Italy for Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus.
His move to Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr, however, signals a step into the unknown.
The Saudi Pro League was unlikely on the radar of the majority of his loyal followers but it is where the next and likely last chapter of his career will be played out after signing a 2 1/2-year contract with Al Nassr.
He will also hope to compete in the Asian Champions League next season if his new club qualifies for the biggest competition in Asian soccer.
“In Europe my work is done,” Ronaldo said when presented by Al Nassr in Riyadh on Tuesday.
But what can the 37-year-old five-time Champions League winner expect from Saudi soccer?
“I know the league is very competitive. People don’t know that, but I know because I saw many games,” he said.
He joins a team that is aiming to become Saudi champion for the 10th time, having last won the title in 2019.
Al Nassr leads the current standings and had a home game scheduled on Thursday, but it was postponed due to heavy rain impacting the stadium electricity. Ronaldo was not due to play as he’s fulfilling a two-match suspension from the English Football Association.
He was sanctioned in November for knocking a mobile phone out of the hand of a spectator after a game against Everton last April, and he had already left United by the time of the ruling.
The Saudi Pro League, in its current guise, was established in 2008, but the competition dates to 1976. Defending champion Al Hilal is the most successful team, having won 18 titles and four Asian Champions Leagues.
Like Al Nassr, it is also based in the Saudi capital and was linked with a move for Ronaldo. While Saudi soccer may not be widely watched in the western world, it is hugely popular in Arabic countries.
More than 1.25 million spectators attended matches in the 2021-22 season, according to official statistics, with a television audience of more than 215 million during that campaign.
And Ronaldo is not the only international player to make his way to Saudi Arabia. Brazilian former Bayern Munich midfielder Luiz Gustavo is at Al Nassr, as well as ex-Arsenal and Napoli goalkeeper David Ospina.
Former Manchester United striker Odion Ighalo plays for Al Hilal.
Ever Banega, who has played for Atletico Madrid, Valencia, Inter Milan and Sevilla, is at Al Shabab.
Statistics produced last year stated the league of 16 teams has 128 international players.
But none as big as Ronaldo.
“Cristiano is one of the best players in the world. In the history of football he is a legend,” Al Nassr coach Rudi Garcia said on Tuesday. “It is an honor for sure for me, but also for Al Nassr to welcome Cristiano.”
Saudi officials and fans will hope Ronaldo’s arrival prompts more elite players to follow in his footsteps — and that could be his lasting legacy beyond whatever trophies he wins in his time in the country.
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