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Cristiano Ronaldo in an Al-Nassr shirt


The group stage of the Asian Champions League begins on Monday, and with it a new sporting chapter for Saudi Arabia legionnaires such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Neymar. Together, the stars of the Saudi Pro League have won eleven UEFA Champions League titles. They could make all the difference in Asian continental competition, but they also face completely new challenges.

Ronaldo's club Al-Nassr, for example, will play away against Persepolis in Tehran in their opener. For years, the matches between Saudi and Iranian teams had taken place on neutral ground. Now, for the first time, they are going to Iran, where women still have very limited access to football stadiums, despite government commitments to the contrary. Ronaldo's team will receive a dubious honor there: the president of Persepolis, Reza Darvish, stated that Al-Nassr will have full access to the Internet, unlike the general public in the country.

"I spoke with the CEO of Irancell and told him that we will provide Irancell SIM cards with unrestricted internet to players and staff," Darvish said.

Four Saudi teams participate

Four of the 40 participating teams in the group stage are from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabian clubs have spent around $950 million on some of the world's biggest stars in the past transfer window. The spending is driven by the acquisition of a majority stake in the four top Saudi Arabian clubs Al-Hilal, Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli and Al-Nassr by the kingdom's sovereign wealth fund.

Neymar, who surpassed Pelé in the Brazilian national team's scoring list last week, joined Al-Hilal in August and only made his league debut on Friday. Hilal had lost the Champions League final last May to the Urawa Reds of Japan.

India looking forward to Neymar

In addition to Neymar, Al-Hilal have also signed English Premier League stars Ruben Neves, Kalidou Koulibaly and Aleksandar Mitrovic, as well as Moroccan goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, Brazilian winger Malcolm and Serbian midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. With Iran's FC Nassaji Mazandaran, Uzbekistan's Navbahor Namangan and Mumbai City FC, the Saudi starting line-up is advancing into worlds unknown to many players.

"They bring this calibre and quality of players to India, which will be very exciting for us and our club, but also for the fans in India," said Mumbai coach Des Buckingham.

With Benzema, former European champion N'Golo Kante from Chelsea FC and Fabinho from Liverpool FC, the current Saudi champions Al-Ittihad will compete. The two-time Asian champions are challenged at home in Jeddah against AGMK from Uzbekistan.

The Saudi quartet is completed by Al-Fayha, which, like the other three clubs, does not belong to the sovereign wealth fund and does not have its star density.

However, the star troops do not yet seem to provide trembling opponents. "We know that the Saudi Arabian teams will be strong opponents, but the level is rising all over Asia," said coach Hong Myong-bo, who won the trophy in 2020 with Ulsan Hyundai Horang-i of South Korea.