Ronaldo to Al Nassr: Legacy and Sporting Greed


“He must ensure he remains an icon of the beautiful game, as opposed to a totem of sporting greed”

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Image by Ludovic Péron

By Gregor Brindle

Ronaldo has a way of grabbing the headlines like no one else. Despite Messi’s World Cup triumph in December, the footballing world has been transfixed by the news that Ronaldo has decided to sign for the Saudi club, Al Nassr.

The 38-year-old will be on a reported salary of £177 million a year, making Ronaldo the highest paid footballer ever. It’s a transfer emblematic of the state of modern football which is growing more detached from reality by the day. Based on average attendances, Ronaldo is joining a club just under the stature of League Two’s Stockport County. Averaging just 8,121 supporters per home game, in a stadium that can seat 25,000.

Financially the move is unviable, and such attendance figures reveal that the transfer is perhaps not intended for a domestic fan base; although it will certainly boost attendances. In this surreal dystopia, Ronaldo has ceased to be a footballer in the traditional sense and is more a celebrity.

He is one of the few individuals who commands more fans than the club that employs them. Al Nassr know they are not paying for the world’s best footballer in Ronaldo, but rather the world’s biggest influencer. Ronaldo’s influence was immediately felt upon his arrival, as Al Nassr’s Instagram followers rose from 800,000 to 5 million almost overnight. It now stands at 12.4 million and counting.

Amnesty International has called out the transfer as part of a wider campaign of sports washing by the Saudi State. They attempt to create a sanitised image of the country for international consumption, by using big brands and names to gain goodwill. In this way, the Ronaldo online presence is more important than his performances on the pitch.

Ronaldo’s decision to join Al Nassr has sparked a debate about his legacy. Speaking in a now infamous interview in December, Piers Morgan mused that “it comes back to my gut feeling about you, that if it was just about money, you’d be in Saudi Arabia earning a King’s ransom”, to which Ronaldo enthusiastically agreed. Just weeks later, Ronaldo was in Riyadh giving his first press conference for his new club!

However, this is not the first time football’s finest have cashed in for one last big money move. Even as far back as the 1970's the likes of Pele and George Best made headlines with moves to the USA. More recently, the MLS has seen some greats of European football with Pirlo, David Beckham, Thierry Henry, and Wayne Rooney to name but a few.

Most controversially in 2016, a then 25-year-old Oscar, shocked fans by leaving Chelsea for Shanghai Shenhua. Oscar’s new contract tripled the already substantial wage he was on at Chelsea. Speaking toCOPA90 in 2017, he cited growing up in poverty and the desire to provide for his family as influencing his decision. Afterall, a footballer’s career is short and unforgiving. An ill-fated injury could bring an end to it, and with little other qualifications, many footballers struggle after retirement. Despite earning a staggering amount at Chelsea, the financial security offered by the move is tough to ignore. If put in Oscar’s situation, I wonder how many of us would decide differently.

Yet the Ronaldo transfer is more than just a pay rise, and Ronaldo is more than just a footballer; he can make millions from social media and brand sponsorships. In 2016 he signed a lifetime contract with Nike worth $1billion. Money should be no object to Ronaldo. Of greater value than his contract is Ronaldo’s brand image and his legacy. Choosing a Saudi club over other alternatives reveals Ronaldo to be concerned with little more than self-interest.

Football prides itself on being an inclusive sport, yet Ronaldo has decided to live, play and be the face of football in a nation where the rights of women, migrants and the LGBTQIA+ community range from minimal to none. Whilst other elite leagues are attempting to create an inclusive atmosphere in football, we should not overlook the fact that Ronaldo has chosen to be the face of football in the place where homosexuality may bring the death penalty.

On the pitch, Ronaldo’s sporting legacy is assured. He will go down in history as one of the greatest footballers to ever play. Off the pitch however will be determined by his actions from here on. Whilst it is hard to criticise his decision to cash in on one last big move, he should be careful about how he wants to be seen going forwards.

Ronaldo must consider his fans, of every ethnicity, religion and sexuality going forwards, and most importantly not sacrifice what football represents, to the highest bidder. Ronaldo must ensure he remains an icon of the beautiful game, as opposed to a totem of sporting greed.