Nkoudou trains with Damac ahead of Riyadh match

Festive period marks first anniversary of Cristiano Ronaldo kickstarting Saudi football revolution

Exactly one year ago, Cristiano Ronaldo would have spent Christmas Day pondering a decision that would end up shaking the world of football to its foundation.

On Christmas Eve, 2022, the Portuguese legend tweeted a family photo — with partner Georgina Rodriguez and his children, wearing Santa hats — simply captioned “Feliz Natal! Merry Christmas!”

The beaming smile did not hint at what was going on in his professional life behind the scenes.

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar had wrapped up a week earlier, but Ronaldo’s Portugal had been eliminated in the quarterfinals on Dec. 10, after a stunning 1-0 loss to Morocco.

For many, Ronaldo, without a club since acrimoniously departing Manchester United only a few weeks earlier, was facing an uncertain future.

Could one of the greatest football careers of all time be winding down to a disappointing end?

Cristiano Ronaldo is seen before the Anthony Joshua v Otto Wallin fight at the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh on Saturday night. (REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri)

The question would be answered in spectacular fashion on New Year’s Eve. After weeks of speculation and rumors, it was announced that Ronaldo would be joining Al-Nassr in Riyadh during the January transfer window.

With one signature of his pen, the Portuguese legend was about to revolutionize Saudi football forever. In his wake, more and more of the world’s biggest stars from some of Europe’s top clubs would follow suit.

A year on, Ronaldo will mark his first Christmas in Saudi Arabia as arguably still the planet’s most popular football player.

On Saturday night, Ronaldo — dressed in an appropriately festive all-green jacket — was spotted with Conor McGregor ringside at the Day of Reckoning boxing event in Riyadh, which saw Anthony Joshua’s victory over Otto Wallin and Deontay Wilder’s shock loss to Joseph Parker.

Christmas Day will no doubt be spent with his young family again, but for the ultimate professional, it will be business as usual on the football front as Ronaldo and his teammates prepare for a crucial Saudi Pro League match on Dec. 26 against Al-Ittihad.

The showdown in Jeddah had been rescheduled due to the reigning Saudi champions’ FIFA Club World Cup commitments over the last two weeks, and for Al-Nassr — who sit 10 points behind Al-Hilal in the SPL table — it is a must-win scenario if they are not to fall further behind in the title race.

For the foreign stars who have made the big move from Europe over the last year, it will be a mixed bag of familiar and new experiences.

The English Premier League is notorious for its busy schedule over the Christmas and New Year period, so for the likes of Aleksander Mitrovic of Al-Hilal, Allan Saint-Maxmin of Al-Ahli and Jordan Henderson of Al-Ettifaq, the SPL’s gentle fixture list for the rest of 2023 will bring a welcome change from their hectic schedules in London, Newcastle and Liverpool.

However, it is a different tale for those who have made the move from places like Italy, Spain or Germany, where the domestic football leagues traditionally enjoy a Christmas break of several weeks.

Still, only one round of SPL matches remains this year, taking place on Dec. 28-30, with the league after that taking a six-week break as the Saudi national team aims for glory at the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar. The new year may well see many of SPL’s foreign contingent heading back home for a well-earned holiday.

Al-Hilal’s foreign contingent of Mitrovic, Malcom, Reuben Neves and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, not to mention coach Jorge Jesus, will be in a jolly mood as they look down on the rest of the league from the summit, a record-extending 19th SPL title rising in probability with every passing week and every passing win.

Neymar Jr., for his part, continues to give updates on his progress as he undergoes a punishing rehabilitation program following a knee injury at the onset of his career at Al-Hilal. Next Christmas will hopefully be a happier one for the Brazilian.

Like Ronaldo and his teammates, Al-Ittihad’s foreign stars — including Fabinho, Jota and Luis Felipe — will have their eyes on the clash with Al-Nassr on Dec. 26, hoping to give their fans some holiday cheer after their disappointing defeat to Al-Ahly of Egypt at the Club World Cup last week.

At Al-Ettifaq, coach Steven Gerrard will likely be spending the holiday casting an eye on potential new signings in an effort to snap his team out of a rut that has seen them go seven matches without a win, something the former Liverpool legend alluded to in the press conference that followed the 3-1 loss to Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr on Friday.

The last word, like the first one, goes to Ronaldo.

“Taking sports to a whole new dimension. Unparalleled vision and execution. Can’t stop being amazed,” he captioned an Instagram photo he posted from the Day of Reckoning event on Saturday night.

As he celebrates his first Christmas in Saudi Arabia, Ronaldo will have the quiet satisfaction of knowing that he has fully played his part in turning that vision into reality.