Soccer players’ final rewarding stage
Aging stars drawn to Gulf for one last payday
Published: Jan 05, 2023 03:31 PM
Cristiano Ronaldo (in black) takes a picture with kids welcoming him at Riyadh International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on January 2, 2023. Photo: VCG

Cristiano Ronaldo (in black) takes a picture with kids welcoming him at Riyadh International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on January 2, 2023. Photo: VCG

Since Brazilian legend Rivelino joined Saudi Arabian side Al-Hilal in the late 1970s, the Gulf region has become a lucrative haven as a final staging post for aging stars.
Five-time Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, who signed a two-year contract with Saudi Arabian outfit Al-Nassr last week, is by far the biggest catch for the oil and gas-rich Gulf states.

With his earnings estimated at more than 200 million euros ($211 million), the 37-year-old Portuguese forward is the latest in a long line of greats that have opted for quantity over quality: forsaking Europe's elite leagues for a final huge payday.

However, if Al Nassr fans' expectations are high they might be tempered by many examples - Brazil 1994 World Cup winners Romario and Bebeto in particular - of those who came, but failed to stay long or provide value for money for the wages they earned. 

Rivelino did give it his all as he brought the curtain down on his 16-year career with Al-Hilal.

One of the stars of the 1970 World Cup-winning Brazil team, Rivelino brought global soccer attention to the kingdom for the first time.

He left his mark by winning the Saudi Professional League title, and scoring 39 goals.

The same year Rivelino joined Al-Hilal, his compatriot, Carlos Alberto Parreira made his way to Kuwait which then qualified for the 1982 World Cup - the only time the country has done so.

UAE push

In 1998, Al Nassr launched its own bid to attract top talent by signing Hristo Stoichkov, widely regarded as the greatest Bulgarian soccer player of all time.

Though his Saudi Arabia stint was short, Stoichkov helped Al Nassr lift the Asian Cup Winners Cup that season.

He was one of many who made cameo appearances for Saudi clubs.

Brazilian superstar and 1994 World Cup winner Bebeto only played five matches - scoring just one goal - before retiring in 2002.

Denilson, another Brazilian star who was once the most expensive player in the sport, played with Al Nassr for only two months in 2007.

Looking enviously on, the United Arab Emirates decided to take action and followed suit.

Liberian George Weah, 1995 Ballon d'Or winner, played with Abu Dhabi's Al Jazira club for two seasons between 2001 and 2003.

Fabio Cannavaro, who led Italy to World Cup glory in 2006, joined the Al-Ahli club in Dubai for one season in 2011.

Qatar bid

Between 2003 and 2004, eventual World Cup hosts Qatar entered the fray by signing more than 30 international players.

These included French defenders Frank Leboeuf and Marcel Desailly, as well as Spain's Pep Guardiola and Fernando Hierro, in addition to Argentina's Gabriel Batistuta, who scored a record-breaking 25 goals in his first season with the Al-Arabi club.

That same season, Qatar's top club - Al-Sadd - signed a 100-day contract valued at $1.5 million with Brazilian legend Romario.

The former Barcelona star failed to score in the three matches he appeared in.

Al-Sadd's more successful snatches include Spaniard Raul, who joined in 2012 and clinched the Qatar League title in his first season.

Al-Sadd then signed a contract with Spaniard Xavi in the summer of 2015 following his triumphant spell with Barcelona.

Xavi did not disappoint.

During his four seasons as a player, he won many local titles, most notably the Qatar league, which he also won again as a coach before he left in late 2021.