Nassr's Portuguese forward #07 Cristiano Ronaldo (R) celebrates with Nassr's Saudi midfielder #29 Abdulrahman Ghareeb after scoring a goal during the Saudi Pro League football match between Al-Nassr and Al-Hazem at the King Abdullah Sports City in Buraidah, on September 2, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

Seoul: Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema have won a combined total of 11 UEFA Champions League titles and, starting Monday, they lead the Saudi Arabian challenge in the Asian edition.

Neymar, who last week surpassed Pele’s international goal tally for Brazil , arrived at Al Hilal in August and made his league debut on Friday as the four-time Asian champion thrashed Abha 6-1. Hilal lost the final to Urawa Reds of Japan last May.

Since then, Saudi Arabian clubs have spent around $950 million on some of the biggest stars in the world.

The spending is being fueled by a move by the Kingdom’s sovereign wealth Public Investment Fund to take a majority ownership stake in four of the country’s top clubs, Al-Hilal, Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli and Al-Nassr.

As well as Neymar, Al-Hilal has signed English Premier League stars Ruben Neves, Kalidou Koulibaly and Aleksandar Mitrovic as well as Moroccan goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, Brazilian winger Malcom and Serbian midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.

Mumbai City has been placed in the same group and the Indians are looking forward to a chance to take on Hilal and especially its Brazilian superstar.

“I think anyone that’s seen the movement in some of these teams, and Neymar being the latest to arrive there, it’s exciting,” Mumbai’s coach Des Buckingham said. “They’re bringing that caliber and quality of player to India, which is going to be extremely exciting for us and for our club but also for the fans of India.”

In total, there are four Saudi Arabian representatives among the 40 in the group stage with the ten group winners and the six-best second-placed teams progressing to the second round.

After years of games between Saudi Arabia and Iran being played in neutral venues, Ronaldo will lead Al-Nassr to Tehran on Tuesday to take on Persepolis. The visitor has never lifted the Asian trophy.

Persepolis president Reza Darvish told local television earlier this month that Al Nassr will be provided with full access to the internet, unlike the general public in the country.

“I have spoken with the CEO of Irancell, and I told him we want to give players and personnel Irancell SIM cards with unrestricted internet so they can use it from the time they enter Iran till the time they leave,” Darvish said.

Al Ittihad is Saudi Arabian champion and, as well as Benzema, has brought in past European winners such as N’Golo Kante from Chelsea and Fabinho from Liverpool. The two-time Asian champion starts against AGMK of Uzbekistan in Jeddah.

Al Fayha completes the Saudi quartet but is not owned, like the other three, by the Public Investment Fund and does not have the same star power. The team starts with a tough trip to Uzbekistan to take on Pakhtakor.

The tournament is not all about the Saudi Arabian teams as it is split into geographic zones until the final, ensuring a representative from the eastern half of the continent next May.

Japan’s Urawa Reds is the current champion and Ulsan Hyundai Horang-i of South Korea lifted the trophy in 2020.

“We know that Saudi Arabian teams will provide strong opposition but the standard is rising all across Asia,” Ulsan coach Hong Myong-bo said. “We have to focus first on doing as well as we can.”