Asia v Europe: Why Ronaldo joining Al Nassr can shake football’s foundations

COMMENT: Cristiano Ronaldo and Al-Nassr. This isn’t about Saudi Arabia. It isn’t even about Middle Eastern football. It’s beyond that. This is about Asia and the power shift inside the game we’re now witnessing.

First the latest. Saudi football is buzzing. Having just hosted Newcastle United for their World Cup break, the nation’s football fans are bouncing. The Toon just an entrée to what is building to an historic announcement involving Al-Nassr and Ronaldo.

Of course from Europe, we now know that after just three days of using the Valdebebas facilities of Real Madrid, Ronaldo is in the UAE. In Dubai. Where he has his business interests, but he is also closer to Riyadh and a potential final round of negotiations with Al-Nassr.

Saudi Federation chief Yasser Al-Mashal was again in the European media midweek, this time openly declaring a deal for Ronaldo can be done, “Yes. There is a possibility to complete this deal, as we want to attract such stars”.

And with the success of Qatar’s World Cup. An Asian World Cup. Football momentum is building in the region. And even if it’s simply through sheer emotion, everything in this story points to Ronaldo signing that bank-busting deal. Indeed, even Al-Nassr’s squad are playing their part.

Uzbekistan international Jaloliddin Masharipov has just given up his No7 shirt at Al-Nassr. There was no announcement. No official statement. Some eagle eyed local journalists spotting Masharipov at training sporting a new kit number – 77. It was later confirmed that the No7 of Al-Nassr had been vacated. This despite the Saudi Pro League being well underway. Indeed, nine games in and Al-Nassr are top of the table, victory at Al-Raed on Saturday secured by doubles from big-talking Cameroon international and Mohamed Salah fan Vincent Aboubakar, along with Benfica’s former Brazilian star Talisca.

A week earlier, at Al-Nassr’s last home game, a recorded exchange between club president Musalli Al Muammar and a young fan went viral across the Middle East. The quick chat was about Ronaldo – and the president was happy to play along.

“They say that Ronaldo will join the team,” said the youngster, to which Al-Muammar replied: “What do you think?”

The young boy said sheepishly, “I don’t know.”

Then Al-Muammar ended the exchange stating, “God willing,” before asking him to pray for Ronaldo’s arrival to take place.

So there has to be some fire amongst all this smoke. Ronaldo in the Middle East. Ronaldo in Asia. It’s unexpected. Perhaps unplanned. But it can be spectacular. The Saudi Pro League is one thing. But you also have the Asian Champions League. All of a sudden Ronaldo isn’t popping up for a friendly or exhibition game. Instead, he’s playing in matches that matter. In front of hostile crowds. The sensitivity of it all completely shifts. And it could spark a transfer race and a new exodus of talent from Europe to Asia.

Mohamed Salah will certainly be given the chance to close out his career in the Middle East. Heung-min Son, of course, will be encouraged to play out his final years with a K-League club. Like Ronaldo, though admittedly on a lesser scale, these aren’t just footballers. They’re global icons in their own right. Salah is to the Arab world as Son is to East Asia. To have Salah, Son and Ronaldo all competing in the ACL – – and with everything they bring – will be ground-breaking. And they’ll do so on a stage already well established.

Alexi Lalas is wrong about Ronaldo. Dead wrong. When the former LA Galaxy president says a move to Saudi will mean “out of sight, out of mind”, he really isn’t considering the potential of this move for Ronaldo and Asian football.

“I can’t remember the last time we heard about the Saudi Arabian league,” declared Lalas, who actually took David Beckham from Real Madrid to the Galaxy when president. “For a guy that is so concerned about his brand, and certainly has more money than he can do with, it’s a strange type of thing for him to do. For 200 million dollars you’ll figure it out, but if the alternative is making less money and I get to go and play and live in Miami or Los Angeles.

“MLS can’t compete with that type of money, but what MLS can give him is a much bigger entrée into the American market – he’s already huge in America. For a guy that’s cultivated this brand over the years, that might have been more appealing.”

Well, to be fair, you can understand Lalas likening Ronaldo’s next move to his deal for Beckham. But it’s a tenuous line at best. Al-Nassr. Al Hilal. These are clubs almost 70 years old. Competing in long established competitions with a traditional supporter base. And that football tradition runs throughout Asia.

This isn’t Beckham and MLS. It’s not even the LA Galaxy and the CONCACAF Champions League. There’s just no comparison. The final ACL now attracts a viewership of over 100 million. Eight years ago the Federation was boasting numbers of 30 million. Again, it’s that football momentum we’re seeing pulse through Asia. By signing for Al-Nassr, Ronaldo would parachute into an already thriving football region. The clubs. The talent. The support. It’s a culture just waiting for an icon like Ronaldo to capitalize on and help move closer to it’s full potential.

And it doesn’t need to be about legacy for Ronaldo. To be given back. We’ve seen with his actions by him at Manchester United that such motivations are not for him. But Asian football doesn’t need that. It’s grown up. Established. And is waiting there to be tapped.

Which you fancy Ronaldo’s bean counters are pitching to him right now. If he takes this Al-Nassr deal it’ll be a straight partnership. A mutual benefit. And with the prospect of taking football across Asia ever closer to it’s full potential.

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