Last month, after a week in which his name was barely out of the headlines, Kylian Mbappe took to the pitch at the Estadio Algarve in Portugal for a largely inconsequential Euro 2024 Qualifier between France and Gibraltar.

On Monday, Mbappe’s childhood hero, Cristiano Ronaldo, was at the same stadium for a game of even less consequence — a friendly between his Saudi club Al Nassr and Celta Vigo.

But if you needed proof of enduring pull factor of Ronaldo, even at the age of 38, Monday night provided it. More than 6,000 turned out to watch Ronaldo’s return to his home country, almost twice the number who watched Mbappe and France, the World Cup finalists.

And it wasn’t simply the number, but the makeup of the crowd which told a story. There was a professional Ronaldo doppelganger, a TikTok influencer from the United Arab Emirates who follows him everywhere, and an array of fans from Portugal, Spain, England and France, among others. They wore Al Nassr, Portugal, Juventus and Real Madrid shirts, and all had come to see their idol.

It didn’t matter that Al Nassr were thrashed 5-0 after Ronaldo was substituted and a sending-off left Al Nassr with 10 men. ‘CR7’ still generated the kind of buzz that you would associate with his best playing days.

With 20 minutes left to play and Celta 2-0 up, streams of people (especially children) turned their focus away from the game and started walking in the direction of Ronaldo, who had taken up his position in a box after his substitution. Some held up banners in tribute to Portugal’s record goalscorer and appearance maker.

Do you think Cristiano still attracts people’s attention?

Minute 69 and the fans forget about the match to go and greet their idol@TheAthleticFC

— Guillermo Rai (@GuillerRai) July 17, 2023

“You’d have to do a university thesis on his social impact,” one of his closest friends told The Athletic as the match unfolded.

It has not all been positive since Ronaldo joined Al Nassr following his second spell at Manchester United in January. There has been a managerial departure, the Frenchman Rudi Garcia having been sacked, and ultimately the club fell short of winning the Saudi Pro League title to Al Ittihad. Some opposition supporters also taunted Ronaldo with chants of “Messi! Messi!”.



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But the Riyadh-based team are still happy with the star forward’s impact and not even the hype generated by Lionel Messi’s recent move to Inter Miami could dampen their spirits. Club sources — who, like the others in this piece, asked to remain anonymous to protect their positions — highlighted that Ronaldo’s first Instagram post holding up an Al Nassr shirt in December generated 34 million ‘likes’ compared to 11 million who have liked Messi’s first photo in Inter Miami’s colours (albeit this was published two days ago).

“We played with the waiting times to surprise people and Inter Miami made it known in advance,” an Al Nassr foreign executive said.

Then there is the influx of star players to Saudi Arabia in the wake of Ronaldo’s move and the acquisition of four teams, including Al Nassr, by the country’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) this summer. Ronaldo sees himself as the player who set the trend in moving to the Saudi Pro League, with Marcelo Brozovic, Karim Benzema, Roberto Firmino and Ruben Neves all now signed up and more set to follow.



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As Ronaldo put it himself after the game: “I said that the Saudi league could be one of the five best in the next three years, but now it could be in just one (year).”

The Saudi Pro League was undoubtedly a significant step down for the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, and there have been accusations that his arrival simply aids Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing project, laundering the country’s reputation around the world despite a poor human rights record.

Those claims will not simply go away, but Ronaldo is certainly keeping his side of the bargain by talking up the league in public. He insisted on Monday that he does not intend to return to Europe and that “the Saudi Pro League is better than the MLS”, seemingly a nod to his long-time rival Messi.

Ronaldo scored 14 goals in the 16 league games he played for Al Nassr last season and is widely considered to have raised standards at the club — both in terms of training and organisation under the guidance of his advisor who brought him there, Ricardo Regufe. Club employees suggest Al Nassr have moved forward by 10 years since the Portugal captain’s arrival, but there is still a long way to go.

(Photo by Zed Jameson/MB Media/Getty Images)

Al Nassr view the signings of Benzema, Kante and Firmino by rival clubs with optimism. They have been undeterred by a ban from FIFA on registering new players due to “outstanding debt”, with club sources insisting the sanction will be reduced to a financial penalty and that they will still be able to sign more players this summer.

There is talk of signing Manchester United left-back Alex Telles, Lens captain Seko Fofana (who passed his medical in Lisbon on Monday), Bayern Munich forward Sadio Mane and an unnamed centre-back from Brazil before the end of the transfer window.

The atmosphere around the team has improved under the leadership of the Portuguese manager Luis Castro, who arrived from Brazilian side Botafogo this summer to replace interim coach Dinko Jelicic. Portuguese is spoken in the dressing room and translated into Arabic for most of the players of Saudi origin.

As always, Al Nassr will look to Ronaldo as they look to mount another title charge this coming season. At 38, it is clear that he is not done yet.

(Top photo: Fran Santiago/Getty Images)