'The Ronaldo Effect' - Can the CR7 brand stay relevant enough to help Saudi Arabia secure the 2030 World Cup?

Cristiano Ronaldo Al-Nassr HIC 16:9
The social media superstar has already drawn attention to Saudi Arabian football - the question now is whether he can keep a hold of it

What is 'The Ronaldo Effect'? It is all around us. It is both real and virtual. It dominates social media and can even influence the stock market. It makes an instant impact but can also bring long-term benefits.

And for all Cristiano Ronaldo's recent woes, it remains so powerful that, on Tuesday evening, it momentarily drew the attention of the world's media away from Pele's funeral procession in Brazil to a packed press room in Riyadh.

"I must say, I'm very surprised by how many people there are here today," Al-Nassr coach Rudi Garcia said with a smile on his face. "Normally, there are only three or four journalists here to talk about the game..."

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On this occasion, there wasn't an empty seat at Mrsool Park. Everyone wanted to see Ronaldo speak for the first time since his sensational move to the Middle East.

He may have mistakenly referred to South Africa rather than Saudi Arabia at one point but this was Ronaldo's most impressive performance in months. He said all the right things. He spoke of influencing the next generation, of changing the perception of Saudi Arabia.

He justified his staggering salary by saying a unique contract benefits a unique player. He insisted that he had received multiple offers from top clubs all across the world but rejected them all in favour of Al-Nassr.

He even mentioned the women's game!

Mostly, though, Ronaldo was at pains to point out that he didn't care what anyone else thought about this transfer, which unsurprisingly drew a massive round of applause from the 'press pack', some of whom had their back turned to Ronaldo as he spoke so that they could try to get in the same shot as the man.

There were further 'selfie' attempts as he exited the room, as well as some imitations of his iconic 'Siu!' celebration. Such behaviour from supposed journalists was, of course, highly questionable but the excitement at Al-Nassr, and among Saudi Arabian football, in general is wholly understandable.

We experienced it here in Italy just four years ago. Back then, the Cristiano Ronaldo effect was everywhere. You could see it when you looked out your window and saw kids with 'CR7' shaved into their heads all wearing the same Juventus jersey. Or when you turned on your television and were inundated with ads hailing 'Il colpo del secolo' (The deal of the century).

It was evident on the front page of every newspaper at every news stand in every city up and down the peninsula, but it could also be found at certain gelaterie, where one could buy a 'CR7' ice cream.

Most importantly, though, the Ronaldo effect was immediately felt online. In the 24 hours after his transfer to Turin was made official, between July 10 and 11, Juve's various social media accounts were boosted by more than 2.2 million followers. Those numbers continued to grow steadily over the following 18 months.

Ronaldo's arrival obviously also resulted in No.7 jerseys flying off the shelves. But it is a myth that the signing of such a superstar can effectively be covered in shirt sales. The far more significant by-product of the transfer was that Ronaldo made the Juventus shirt far more valuable.

Cristiano Ronaldo Juventus jerseys 2018 GFX

Just six months after Ronaldo touched down in Turin, the Bianconeri signed a new, improved, seven-year sponsorship deal with their kit manufacturer, adidas, worth €357m (£308m/$395m) – double the value of the previous agreement.

Then, in November 2019, the club extended their partnership with shirt sponsors JEEP for €42m (£36.2m/$46.4m) – an increase of €25m on the previous agreement.

However, as Marco Bellinazzo, author of 'La fine del calcio Italiano' (The end of Italian football) told GOAL at the time, "The Ronaldo effect is real. It's there for all to see. But the problem for Juventus in this early stage is that you can also see an increase in costs, not just revenue.

"It's evident in the fact that, at the end of Ronaldo's first year at Juve, they experienced a €40m (£35m/$42.5m) loss in spite of the fact that the club made more than €150m (£132m/$159m) in capital gains in the transfer market.

"The bottom line is that by signing Ronaldo, Juve have started down a path that you can't just decide to abandon. This is a process that you can't reverse. Juve have to continue to grow and they have to continue to win."

They did neither. Ronaldo held up his end of the bargain, of course. He raised the profile of the club off the field, and he scored freely on it.

However, both the club's financial and sporting projects failed. The pandemic undoubtedly played a massive part, as Juve lost millions in matchday revenue. However, the Covid-19 crisis also exposed the fragile nature of their financial framework. In their desperation to balance the books, they made a number of accounting and recruitment errors of which they are still counting the cost.

In the end, Ronaldo's 2021 move to Manchester United alleviated some – but by no means all – of the financial pressure on Juve. His exit was best for both parties.

So, why is Juve's failed Ronaldo experiment relevant to Saudi Arabia? Because while there are some significant differences, there are obvious parallels in terms of targets. For starters, both deals were about far more than sporting success.

Former Juventus president Andrea Agnelli admitted that commercial considerations had been taken into account when signing Ronaldo.

Al-Nassr obviously don't need the forward for financial reasons but they are keen to tap into the 'CR7' brand. "The agreement is not limited to football... it is commercially beneficial for us in terms of profitability," Musalli Al-Muammar admitted.

The Al-Nassr chairman added that Ronaldo's mere presence will help "achieve more success for the club, Saudi sports, and future generations".

Ronaldo should certainly significantly raise the profile of the Pro League and prove a source of inspiration for children all across the Middle East, and beyond. How much he can actually contribute remains to be seen, though.

In the age of influencers, Al-Nassr have undoubtedly signed the most influential. Many younger fans follow footballers these days, rather than clubs, and nobody in the world has more than Ronaldo. However, while he has already drawn attention to Saudi Arabian football, holding it will be far more difficult.

He says he wants to break more records in the Pro League, after smashing so many in Europe, but his goalscoring exploits are unlikely to carry quite the same weight, meaning they won't generate the same level of online excitement.

Just like Tuesday's unveiling, his first games will likely attract interest from outside Saudi Arabia but one does wonder how long it will last.

He's obviously set to be ridiculously well remunerated, but this is something of a gamble on his part. There is an obvious risk here of Ronaldo becoming an irrelevance outside of the Middle East. As the 2022 World Cup so painfully hammered home, his sporting prowess is clearly on the wane, meaning the 'The Ronaldo Effect' is in danger of wearing off too.

Remember, when he joined Juventus, even the likes of Neymar heralded a return to Serie A's glory days. But it didn't happen. Ronaldo is an all-time great, and a commercial colossus, but he is no miracle-worker. In the case of Serie A, he couldn't single-handedly revive a league that has been grossly mismanaged for decades.

It was terribly unfortunate that his arrival at Juventus came just weeks after the conclusion of negotiations over a new TV deal – but, even then, the Italian game failed to make the most of his three-year stint in Turin.

Proper promotion won't be a problem in the Pro League, of course. They can throw much more money at highlighting Ronaldo's exploits in Saudi Arabia.

But both the league's standard of play and profile are lower than that of Serie A so, while there has already been talk of Luka Modric and N'Golo Kante joining Ronaldo at Al-Nassr, it will be a tall order for him to suddenly transform Saudi Arabia into one of the most attractive destinations for the game's greatest players – no matter how many records he breaks.

Ultimately, though, the success of this move will not be measured in goals or trophies. It will all hinge on whether Saudi Arabia wins the right to host the 2030 World Cup. That is really what this deal is all about, Ronaldo casting Saudi Arabian football in a positive light ahead of the vote at a FIFA congress in two years' time.

As the man said himself on Tuesday, "I'm excited by this opportunity to develop this club, and this amazing country. I want to change the perception of Saudi Arabia and its football."

If the controversy surrounding Qatar 2022 is anything to go by, that will be anything but easy. But if anyone can do it, it's a veritable social media superstar backed by a bottomless well of oil money.

We are set, then, to discover the true power of 'The Ronaldo Effect'.