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Cristiano Ronaldo is ‘visionary’ that changed Saudi football, says Al-Nassr CEO Guido Fienga

JEDDAH: On Jan. 19, 2023, Cristiano Ronaldo played his first match on Saudi soil since his sensational move to Riyadh in a friendly match between a combined Al-Nassr-Al-Hilal XI and French champions Paris Saint-Germain.

As fate would have it, facing him was none other than newly crowned world champion Lionel Messi in a match that had been scheduled months before Ronaldo signed for Al-Nassr.

Just over a year on from the PSG’s 5-4 win, an injury to Ronaldo has denied fans a reunion of the two great rivals in Thursday night’s friendly between Al-Nassr and Inter Miami, dubbed “The Last Dance.”

But in between those two matches, Ronaldo’s impact on Saudi, Arab and Asian football, and even across the world, has been seismic.

In his wake, some of the world’s best players have joined from some of Europe’s elite clubs, moves that a few years ago would have been unthinkable.

Al-Nassr’s yellow shirt is now ubiquitous around the world, and the Roshn Saudi League is being broadcast globally in countries that only a few years ago had showed little interest in this region’s football.

And Ronaldo has done it while remaining at the top of his game, according to Al-Nassr CEO Guido Fienga.

“Cristiano obviously adds a lot in gaining visibility,” Fienga told Arab News during a recent conversation in Jeddah. “Cristiano is the most visible man in the world. But Cristiano still is the top player. He is the one that has scored more goals in the league, the one that makes more assists and definitely is the best player in the (Saudi) league and continues to be the best player in the world because he’s competing in a real competition, he is in extremely good shape, is a super captain and all the players that are around him improve their quality.

The ex-Roma chief, who joined Al-Nassr in September, praised Ronaldo for believing in Saudi football when others scoffed.

“We have to recognize one thing, Cristiano has been a pioneer, he has been the visionary. When Cristiano came here, everyone talked about how he is going to get a golden pension, a golden retirement.

“No, he has been the one that watched and saw something that others didn’t understand. It’s the launch of a new product. So we need to recognize that Cristiano is going beyond football, he has been and still is the best player on the pitch. But he’s also the only player that has been able to launch a new product (across) the world. So he’s gone beyond football. He’s the (leader) and the others are followers.”

Since joining Al-Nassr, Fienga has seen at first hand the passion for the game that has existed well before the influx of foreign players that Ronaldo sparked.

“It is real football,” he said. “Saudi’s a real football country, Middle East is a real football region. Here, people live every day talking and chatting and watching and discussing football. It’s kind of like Italy, I come from another country of football. It is real football, the competition (SPL) is a real competition.

“If you see our matches, the matches of Al-Nassr, but also many matches of the Saudi League, the show is at the level of top championships. The program (SPL project) is a long-term program. So it’s not a bubble like some want to believe, or want to say. It is not a temporary project. There is a clear project with a budget, and with a vision more importantly. This program is at least 10 years because this country will host the Asian Cup in 2027, the World Cup in 2034, and we need to build a strong Saudi football movement with strong Saudi players.

“We have many of Saudi players in our team that are very good, but most important, who are growing very fast,” Fienga said. “So the idea to combine the international players with the Saudi players in the Saudi Pro League now is working because I’m recording how fast the improvement of our Saudi players is, not only the national team players, but all Saudi players. According to the assessment of our coach, Luis Castro, who by the way is a top coach, he was the most (successful) coach in 2023. So the words of Luis are important, he has been impressed by the evolution of the Saudi players. So the feeling is very good, but also the expectations are very high.”

Fienga says that the perception of Saudi football across the world, and in particular in Europe, has changed rapidly since last summer.

“People at first had been shocked by the entrance of a new actor, then they start to say, maybe it’s another bubble. Then they move onto something that for me is totally wrong, the big concern that Saudi football wants to compete with European football.

“The reality is different,” Fienga said. “Saudi football is a new product. It’s addressing a market that is not Europe. Saudi football became the (top) product in all Middle East. But more important it became the second product in a vast region that (covers) North African countries, Western African countries, a large part of Asia. So definitely Saudi fooball is the first or second product watched in an area that attracts more than 3.5 billion people, so eight times Europe.

“Europe cannot be concerned that we want to compete with them, we want to develop our own strategy, but at the end to serve a region that is much larger than Europe. We are taking care about ourself and and developing our strategy without feeling competition with anyone.”