Saudi’s Al Nassr look to sign Modric, Kante after Ronaldo coup

A billboard is seen on the streets of Riyadh announcing the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo to Al Nassr in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on 3 January, 2023Reuters

Few expected Cristiano Ronaldo to rock up in Riyadh but Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr came up with the cash when it counted to pull off the biggest coup in Gulf football history.

Despite a stack of domestic titles the Riyadh outfit has seen little success on the wider stage, enjoying their best days in Gulf and Asian competition in the 1990s.

Bulgarian striker Hristo Stoichkov, like Ronaldo a former Ballon d’Or winner, scored the only goal in their finest triumph when Al Nassr, known as “The International”, lifted the 1998 Asian Cup Winners Cup.

Cristiano Rolando and his family arrive in Saudi Arabia

Al Nassr will now hope Ronaldo, a surprise capture for an estimated 200 million euros until June 2025, can fire them to the Asian Champions League victories enjoyed by rivals Al Hilal and Al Ittihad.

The club is even eyeing other high-profile coups, including Real Madrid’s Croatian playmaker Luka Modric and France midfielder N’Golo Kante, said an official who asked not to be named.

Real Madrid's Croatian midfielder Luka Modric

“We will celebrate Ronaldo tomorrow and continue to work... towards high-level signings,” he said, adding that Al Nassr is looking to put together the “new galacticos”.

France and Chelsea midfielder N'Golo Kante

Stoichkov, who played only two matches, was the last superstar to pull on the shirt of Al Nassr, who were formed as an amateur team in 1955 and have racked up nine Saudi league titles.

Ronaldo, 37, is on a different level again, bagging five Ballons d’Or as he collected five European Champions League titles and a host of domestic honours, along with a considerable personal fortune and millions of adoring fans.

While the resource-rich Gulf has attracted its share of ageing stars, including George Weah, Pep Guardiola and Xavi, the Portuguese - and his enormous salary - is taking the region’s football into uncharted waters.

From Real to Riyadh

Al Nassr play at Mrsool Park in the Saudi capital, which was inaugurated in 2015 and has a 25,000 capacity - a far cry from Ronaldo’s previous stomping grounds including Real Madrid’s 81,000-seat Santiago Bernabeu.

Club president Musalli Al-Muammar, the ex-head of the Saudi Pro League with a marketing and media background, took over in April 2021, succeeding a series of high-ranking Saudi royals.

Ronaldo joins a team marshalled by French coach Rudi Garcia that includes Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina, Brazilian midfielder Luiz Gustavo and Cameroonian forward Vincent Aboubakar.

Al Nassr’s most distinguished player to date was Majid Abdullah, the legendary striker who scored 72 goals and helped the Saudi national team win the Asian Cup in 1984 and 1988.

But their heyday came in the 1990s, winning the Asian Cup Winners’ Cup and the Asian Super Cup in 1998 to gain a spot in the inaugural Club World Cup in 2000 and earn their nickname “The Internationals”.

Al Nassr, with their signature blue-and-yellow kit, have also clinched six King Cups along with three victories each in the Saudi Crown Prince Cup and the Saudi Federation Cup.

But the honours have dried up in recent years since their last Saudi league title in 2019.