It was only in November that Cristiano Ronaldo spoke about his desire to continue playing in one of Europe’s biggest leagues.
Instead, he is now an Al Nassr player having moved to Saudi Arabia as a free agent in December — and become the highest-paid footballer in history, earning £173million ($213m) a year.
The former Manchester United star is yet to play for his new club because a two-game suspension he received from the Football Association carried over, but he will be eligible to play in an exhibition tie against Paris Saint-Germain today.
The 37-year-old’s league debut could come at home to Ettifaq on Sunday.
Plenty has been said and written about his lucrative deal and what it means for Saudi Arabia, but what can a player who has won five Ballon d’Or titles expect to encounter in the Saudi Pro League?
According to the sports intelligence agency, Twenty First Group, Al Nassr are the 308th-best team in the world and their relative quality is comparable to Championship teams Luton Town and Sunderland. Manchester United are deemed to be the 17th-best team in the world.
The Saudi Pro League is rated as the 58th highest-quality league in the world, according to the strength of its average team, which places it below the Scottish Premiership (49th), but above Serie C (68th) in Italy.
Its worst teams are ranked around 3,000th in the world, which is around the same level as mid-table National League clubs such as FC Halifax Town and Boreham Wood, putting the average quality of those competing in the division on a par with weak League One teams or good League Two sides.
“Within any given league and country, it is relatively easy to work out who the good and bad teams are,” Omar Chaudhuri, chief intelligence officer at Twenty First Group, said. “You have results on the pitch, you see how teams do when they get promoted and relegated and how they do in domestic cups. You can account for the strength of line-ups and that type of thing.
“It gets tricky when you go cross-continent because the teams don’t play each other that much, although we do have the Club World Cup which gives us an indication of the relative quality of South America, Asia and so on.
“Relatively speaking, Al Nassr are not that bad, but there is a big drop-off once you start getting outside the top 15 or 20 teams. By the time you get to 308th, you have got Championship-level teams.”
Twenty First Group’s “World Super League” model ranks over 4,000 teams globally and uses results from domestic, continental, and intercontinental matches to assess the relative standard of teams and leagues.
“The Premier League is the highest quality league because when we take the average ranking and rating of the teams in that league, it comes out higher than the Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A and so on,” said Chaudhuri.
As well as determining the quality of the Saudi Pro League, Twenty First Group and Chaudhuri are able to quantify the impact Ronaldo may have for Al Nassr.
“We can see how players perform when they go across leagues,” said Chaudhuri. “We can see, for example, when strikers move from Asia to Europe that gives us a sense of relative standards in quality and we can see their goalscoring rates increase or decrease.”
Given the fact that the average quality of the Saudi Pro League is between League One and League Two, Ronaldo should be buoyed by the chances he will have to score.
“Our exchange rates model allows us to understand how much a goal in one league is worth in another,” said Chaudhuri. “This model estimates that a Premier League goal is worth around 2.6 goals in the Saudi Pro League.”
Excluding penalties, Ronaldo scored 0.48 goals per 90 minutes during his second spell with Manchester United.
“Based on the ‘exchange rate’, this equates to around 1.28 goals per 90, or around 21 goals if he were to play most of the minutes for Al Nassr between now and the end of the season — before any penalties he will inevitably take,” added Chaudhuri.
Although there is a strong possibility Ronaldo will score goals for fun in Saudi Arabia, Chaudhuri is yet to come across a player who has dropped down so many levels in a single transfer.
“The only comparison I can think of is the MLS,” said Chaudhuri. “We rate the MLS as the 29th-best league in the world, so it is not that low. But the difference with the MLS is that the quality is much more concentrated.
“With Saudi Arabia, there is a massive gap between top and bottom teams, but the MLS is far more competitive, so the worst teams tend to be a bit better.
“There aren’t any examples of a player as good as Ronaldo dropping down to that level. He was still playing fairly regularly for United, and I can’t think of anything with that drop-off.”
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There is a desire in Saudi Arabia to welcome other high-profile football players — they hope Ronaldo opens the door.
But even if they sign several world stars, it is unlikely to move the needle in terms of how Twenty First Group assesses the Saudi Pro League.
“The quality of your league, fundamentally, is dictated by the quality of your local talent,” says Chaudhuri. “In most cases, they will tend to make up close to 50 per cent. Even in the Premier League, around 35-40 per cent of players are English.
“Yes, they will be able to improve the quality of the league but you need a good underlying talent pool of local players, which is why Japan and (South) Korea are rated as the best leagues in Asia.
“It will help grow the commercial value of the league because more people will want to watch it locally and in the region, which may then be re-invested in coaching, but it will be a long time before that is realised in domestic talent.”
(Photo: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)
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