The Saudi spectacle that became the final showdown between Messi and Ronaldo – The Wall Street Journal

The Saudi spectacle that became the final showdown between Messi and Ronaldo – The Wall Street Journal

When Paris Saint-Germain agreed to play a midseason show in Saudi Arabia in early 2022, the expectation was that the event would be a lucrative and memorable friendly, little more than a glorious photo op. When the match had to be postponed by a year due to Covid-19, the affair mostly became an inconvenience.

His move to Saudi Arabia club Al Nassr in December inadvertently put himself in a position to play with a group of Saudi league all-stars against PSG on Thursday night. What should have been an understated publicity stunt has now turned into a final, bizarre showdown between the two players who defined an entire era of global football: Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

“I feel very good and proud to have made this big decision in my football life,” Ronaldo said at his Saudi reveal, ahead of the PSG game announcement. “I did well on my mission in Europe and achieved everything.”

He just didn’t think his European life would resurface so quickly. Although Ronaldo and Messi have dominated the football debate for 15 years – and scooped every Ballon d’Or award for a decade – they have shared the same spot only about three dozen times. Most of these encounters took place during their heyday, when their own rivalry piggybacked on the blood feud between Barcelona and Real Madrid. They haven’t played each other since December 2020, when Messi’s Barça lost 3-0 at home to Ronaldo’s Juventus in the Champions League group stage.

“I’ve always had a warm relationship with Messi,” Ronaldo, feeling magnanimous after his two goals, said on Spanish television that evening. “Like I said, I’ve been sharing awards with him for 12, 13, 14 years.”

The Saudi spectacle that became the final showdown between Messi

Messi’s Barça lost 3-0 at home to Ronaldo’s Juventus in the group stage of the Champions League in December 2020.

Photo: ALBERT GEA/Portal

Circumstances could not have changed more drastically since then. Messi, 35, won the World Cup for the first time with Argentina last month and clinched the one trophy he had always eluded.

Ronaldo, on the other hand, left the World Cup unemployed and in tears. He had just been sacked by Manchester United after a clash with the club’s manager and relegated to the bench for Portugal national team after the impressive defeat by Morocco. At 37, his prospects for a glorious final chapter in football were quickly dimming. Rather than face even more uncertainty in Europe, he accepted Al Nassr’s offer of $200 million a season. Ronaldo’s consolation for never winning a World Cup was simply the richest contract in sporting history.

Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia says a lot about the modern economics of football. That his final confrontation with Messi was also set to take place in Riyadh was a stark reminder that the kingdom is serious about establishing its influence on the world’s most popular sport – and they will spare no expense in doing so.

In less than a year, he has managed to do what no club has done before by signing two of the most iconic athletes of all time. Seven months before it brought Ronaldo to the Gulf, Saudi unveiled Messi as the kingdom’s tourism ambassador at a ceremony in Jeddah, where Princess Haifa al-Saud took him on a tour of the old city tweeted that Messi was “fascinated by his essence, his heritage and his beauty”.

Messi won’t have much time for Saudi heritage on this trip. PSG will only arrive on Thursday morning of the game. The reality is that from a scheduling perspective, the game is another issue that PSG didn’t need. The calendar had already been compressed by a six-week break for the World Cup in Qatar and the club are chasing silverware in three separate competitions. This Thursday’s game comes between a French league defeat on Sunday night and a French Cup game that has been postponed to Monday night.

But money-making tours have become a necessary evil for clubs that spend as lavishly as PSG. The two-day trip to the Gulf, which initially includes a stopover in Qatar, could net the club, which posted losses of 370 million euros ($402 million) last season, well into the eight figures.

“The agreement was made last season and the club has to respect it,” said PSG coach Christophe Galtier, who only took over PSG in the summer. “Is the timing good? We had to respect the commitment made. I honor that commitment.”

A select all-star team awaits Paris from the two most successful clubs in Saudi football, Al Hilal from Riyadh and Al Nassr from Ronaldo. This once-in-a-lifetime marriage of convenience between the two teams is all the more absurd given their decades-long rivalry, as if the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox were putting their differences aside for exhibition.

1674060521 210 The Saudi spectacle that became the final showdown between Messi

Lionel Messi and PSG only arrive on Thursday, the morning of the game.

Photo: Jean Catuffe/Dppi/Zuma Press

What is clear is that the team on Thursday night could just as easily be called Ronaldo FC. Although he has yet to play a single game in Saudi Arabia, he has already been named captain of the joint team by one of football’s most enigmatic figures, Turki al-Sheikh. Sheikh is not only the head of the Saudi General Entertainment Authority and a political enforcer of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He’s also the owner of Almeria, a club from the south coast of Spain that recently got promoted to La Liga, and a super fan who uses his vast fortune to fly in footballing world leaders to visit. Messi has sent him personalized birthday messages on Instagram alongside dozens of other stars including Paul Pogba and Jose Mourinho.

All of this helped Sheikh become one of the architects of Thursday’s game – and its main hype man. His final stunt was auctioning off a gold ticket to the game for charity. In addition to the usual hospitality, it also offers access to the dressing room. The tender opened with 1 million Saudi riyals ($266,000) and the winner, according to Sheikh, was a Saudi businessman named Musharraf Al-Ghamdi.

He paid $2.6 million for the privilege of taking part in the last 2v1 of the Messi-Ronaldo era.

“Great stars from two international teams [will meet]…historic moments,” Sheikh tweeted. “An event that will never be forgotten.”

Write to Joshua Robinson at [email protected]

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