‘Still the best player in the world’ - Ronaldo’s remarkable renaissance

By age 38, most footballers have sailed off into the sunset, kicking up their heels after a long and, hopefully, fulfilling career.

But not Cristiano Ronaldo.

The five-time Ballon d’Or winner, instead, has found a new lease of life in the Roshn Saudi League since joining Al Nassr in a landmark deal at the end of 2022.

If people thought he was using the move to the RSL as a means to slowly slip into retirement, then think again. If anything, the move to the Riyadh-based club is helping prolong the career, both at club and international level, of one of the best footballers ever to play the game.

While he made an instant impact at Al Awwal Park, netting 14 goals in 16 games to conclude the 2022-23 season, including two hat-tricks, that was only an entree for what was to come this season.


New season, new heights

While Al Nassr uncharacteristically started the season with back-to-back defeats, their 5-0 defeat of Al Fateh set the tone for the following months, both for the club and Ronaldo himself.

The Portuguese legend netted a hat-trick at the Prince Abdullah bin Jalawi Stadium, and both he and Al Nassr haven’t looked back since. Including the game against Al Fateh, Ronaldo scored in six straight RSL games, banging in 10 goals in that period to shoot to the top of the Golden Boot standings.

He followed up his hat-trick with a brace against Al Shabab just four days later as Luis Castro’s side got their campaign back on track.

September was just as prosperous for Portugal’s all-time leading scorer, scoring in away victories against Al Hazem and Al Raed, before adding another brace in a thrilling 4-3 win over Al Ahli. He rounded out the month with an important 87th minute strike to seal a 2-1 victory against Al Tai.

Further goals have followed against Damac and Al Khaleej, making it 13 goals in just 12 games this season - a phenomenal return in anyone’s language.

For those asking, only three of his 13 goals have been from the penalty spot. Those aside, there have been goals from range, tap ins, headers and the signature free kick which have seen his famous ‘Siuuu’ celebration performed at stadiums right across the Kingdom.

On current form he will easily surpass his 14 goals from last season, and with 22 games of the season remaining, could he challenge Abderrazak Hamdallah single season record of 34 goals when playing for Al Nassr in 2018/19?

Then there are his exploits in the AFC Champions League, where he has another three goals from as many matches, including a stunning brace in a recent 4-3 thriller against Qatari side, Al Duhail.

Those two goals lead to lavish praise from former PSG manager Christophe Galtier, now coach of Al Duhail.

"When you face Ronaldo, there isn't much you can do," the Frenchman said. "He scored two beautiful goals. I'm at a loss for words to describe him.

“What he did today is extraordinary for a 38-year-old. He's still the best player in the world."

Assist King

For most players, simply scoring 13 goals in 12 games and leading the Golden Boot would be enough. But again, not for Cristiano Ronaldo.

In addition to his league-leading 12 strikes, the 38-year-old also leads the assist charts with seven, taking his total goal contributions to 19 in just 12 games, accounting for more than half of all the goals Al Nassr have scored this season.

It’s a selfless, team-first ethos ‘CR7’ has added to his game this season, with Al Nassr significantly strengthening the squad over the summer, meaning the feeling of having to do it all himself perhaps isn’t as prevalent as it was last season when he registered just the two assists to go with his 14 goals.

And while Ronaldo and Anderson Talisca are perhaps the league’s best double act - more on that soon - it’s not just the Brazilian that Ronaldo is feeding this season. His seven assists have been provided to five different players - Sadio Mane (2), Talisca (2), Otavio, Abdulrahman Ghareeb and Aymeric Laporte.

Dynamic duo

As soon as Ronaldo stepped through the doors at Al Awwal Park at the start of this year, he struck up a close connection to Brazilian Talisca; already an established talisman for the Riyadh side who had netted 20 goals in the previous season.

In the early days of Ronaldo’s tenure in the RSL, he was photographed laughing and smiling with the 29-year-old, formerly of Benfica, Besiktas and Guangzhou Evergrande, and the potential was there for not just a beautiful friendship, but a deadly strike partnership.

It’s a relationship that has only blossomed with the passage of time, and the two present arguably the best double act in the RSL.

With Ronaldo registering 13 goals and seven assists, Talisca is more than holding up his end of the bargain with eight goals and two assists of his own from just seven matches.

Al Wehda v Al-Nassr - Saudi Pro League

When you add in their form on the continent, where Al Nassr are a perfect four from four in the AFC Champions League, their double act becomes even more impressive, with Talisca bagging eight goals in four games and Ronaldo a further three.

It means across both competitions, in the 15 games they have played, the two have combined for a staggering 32 goals and 11 assists, all of which makes for frightening reading for any opposition scout.

Talisca has been fortunate enough to witness Al Nassr before and after the arrival of his Portuguese teammate and was recently full of praise for what the five-time UEFA Champions League winner has been able to bring to the club.

“(He) changed the mentality of many players in the club,” he said.

“We are talking about the best player in the world. Cristiano is always the first to arrive at training and the last to leave. Playing with Ronaldo is easy and it's very easy when you understand him.”

The smile is back

What has been noticeable this season in particular is the joy seems to have returned for Ronaldo.

While he undoubtedly enjoyed his first six months at Al Nassr at the backend of the 2022-23 season, with the recent surge of investment, Al Nassr have added even more star power in the form of former Liverpool superstar Sadio Mane, Aymeric Laporte, Otavio, Marcelo Brozovic and Seko Fofana.

Above all else, Ronaldo seems to be thoroughly enjoying his time in Saudi Arabia. There is a playfulness, both in the changerooms and on-the-pitch, in the way he interacts with his teammates that suggests there is pure harmony within the squad.

When a player is happy in life and in their environment it shows on the pitch, and that is certainly the case with Ronaldo.

We’ve also seen how he has embraced a new culture in Saudi Arabia, partaking in national day celebrations, wearing traditional dress and embracing not just the culture of the country, but his status as a leader within the football revolution taking place.

"I already knew, and I still say as I said six months ago: everyone thought I was so crazy about this move. But after all, it isn't so crazy any more,” he said earlier this year.

“Now, it's normal to play in the Saudi league. I knew this was going to happen. As an Al Nassr player, I have been playing for eight months and I feel the improvement.

“For me, it’s a great honour to change how people see the country and its culture. Not only that, but also the level of football is great now, and that makes me very happy and proud.

“I was the pioneer and I feel proud of it. I want the Saudi league to continue to evolve in the upcoming years to become a remarkable top league.”

At the end of his second stint with Manchester United, he cut a frustrated and jaded figure. Fast forward only 12 months and the picture couldn’t be any more different.

The beaming smile has returned and he is proving once-and-for-all that age is no barrier to success.