Cristiano Ronaldo is the biggest name in the Saudi Pro League.

‘Come to see Cristiano?’: Ronaldo, Riyadh & the Saudi Pro League experience


In the latest edition of The Blizzard, John Duerdan visited Riyadh for the Al-Hilal v Al-Nassr and the experience of attending the Riyadh derby in the days of plenty. We are pleased to carry an excerpt of this exceptional piece.

John Duerden writes about Asian football for the Guardian, BBC, New York Times, World Soccer, AP and ESPN, and is the author of four books.

People don’t usually walk for long distances in Saudi Arabia. The cities are sprawling, for much of the year the weather, of course, makes it tough and public transport is not extensive.

There is, however, a new metro ready to open in Riyadh. In December, sleek trains could be seen on the overhead rails on their way to shiny new stations but, at the time, they were still testing the six lines around the city.

Khalid, my Uber driver, still by far the easiest way for visitors to get around, had his doubts about it all. “Arabs like to drive by themselves,” he said, adding that he planned to leave the city due to the increasingly bad traffic and head north with his family.

“And the stations then drop you at a place and then you still have to drive to get where you want to go. We want to know where we are going and then get there as quickly as possible.”

Despite the clear metaphor there about Saudi Arabian football, it was only before and after the Riyadh Derby between Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr, first and second in the Saudi Pro League respectively, when I saw large groups of people walking in the street.

Wherever you go, there is something about walking in a big group of football fans. It has its own dynamic and that’s just as true in the terraced streets of my hometown of Blackburn and the King Fahd International Stadium, situated at the very edge of the growing
capital and surrounded by desert.

The feeling of togetherness is there in both places.

Then there is what happens after as thousands leave at the same time. At Ewood Park, fans share the same emotions before heading off into
different directions.

Given that the King Fahd International Stadium with its current capacity of around 58,000 –though it will soon be increased to over 80,000; the Riyadh Derby is the last game there before it closes to be renovated for the 2027 Asian Cup, itself a precursor to the World Cup seven years later – is at the very eastern reaches, everyone pretty much goes the same way, both before and after.

The wide lanes of traffic that headed towards the ground and into the surrounding wasteland that serves for car parking were impossible to cross without fans on foot taking pity and helping. Arab hospitality and friendliness is never far away there.

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Fans in Saudi Arabia are unusual in Asian terms in that they will often ask which local team you support. Chinese or Malaysian supporters, for example, would never imagine that a foreigner would follow one of their clubs.

For now at least, the answer of ‘Ettifaq’ with its British connection of Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Jack Hendry, is a safe one and usually elicits knowing smiles and once, a delighted remark of “Blood finds blood.”

It was striking how many women were there compared to the past; indeed prior to 2018 there had been none allowed in to watch football at all.

Around the stadium, with its distinctive white sail design, there were fathers with daughters and wives, groups of girls together with
flags resting on their shoulders, laughing and joking as they walked with everyone else and typed on phones, and older women, some in full burka and others in hijabs, selling half-and-half scarves on the roadside.

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Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring for Al-Nassr

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• • • •

Inside the arena were female doctors offering flu vaccines, staff selling kebabs in the concourse and stewards showing fans to their seats.

Until now, this could have been the scene from the past. Big games in Saudi Arabia have often attracted big crowds and there have usually been highly paid foreigners on both teams.

The situation now, however, is at a different level now, as everyone knows. “Have you come to see Cristiano?” one fan shouted as he walked past. Some certainly did.

In my hotel, a young Iraqi boy visiting with his dad talked at breakfast about seeing Ronaldo and touching his shirt in some Riyadh

There was a Chinese woman from Guangzhou with a son studying at Edinburgh University, who flew from Scotland for this one game “to see Cristiano”.

His celebrity is obviously a big reason why Al-Nassr signed him in December 2022. He may have been the first major star to arrive but he remains the face of the league.

This piece appeared in the 52nd edition of the esoteric football quarterly The Blizzard. If you’d like more of this, take out a print + digital subscription here (https://theblizzard.co.uk/shop/subscribe/print-digital/).

Use the code ‘planetfootballbundle’ to receive a copy of The Blizzard quiz book The Quizzard, a copy of The Best First Five Years of The Blizzard and a copy of Jonathan Wilson’s football novel Streltsov for no extra cost (excluding p&p).