After Ronaldo, Saudi football fans now have hearts set on Messi

Signing Argentina's Word Cup-winning superstar would be a 'dream come true for Arabs'

Lionel Messi led Argentina to victory in the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar. Getty
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Saudi football fans are eagerly waiting to see if Saudi Arabia's tourism ambassador and World Cup champion Lionel Messi will sign up for local football club Al Hilal.

If he accepts the offer, they feel, it will be a historic moment for Arabs and will help "bring the world together".

Their hopes are high after the recent signing of Portuguese football star Cristiano Ronaldo by the Saudi club Al Nassr.

Ronaldo's arrival helped Saudi Arabia to position itself as a top player in the sporting industry, under the directives of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The kingdom has already hosted high-profile events across various sports, and is now preparing to hold the 2029 Asian Winter Games at its new megacity, Neom.

Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki, who has said that "with leaders like King Salman, the Crown Prince, dreams come true", has recalled the time he was appointed.

"When I asked the Crown Prince, 'What's your expectation of me?', he said: 'Whatever you dreamt about, go and do it.'"

"The kingdom's efforts to establish itself as a big player helps the world recognise Saudi Arabia for its leadership and I think this is reflected across the board, sports being one of the major sectors," Tareq Alnassar, an entrepreneur and football enthusiast in Jeddah, told The National.

"I am a huge fan of Messi. My friends and brothers, we have travelled so many times to go watch Messi play in Barcelona.

"We never even thought this could be a possibility, but I can tell you Saudis can't wait for this dream to come true."

Al Nassr signed Ronaldo in December in a deal reported to be worth $220 million a year. His contract runs until 2025. He has scored 12 league goals since January.

"I remember my friends abroad would poke fun at Saudi Arabia for pitching for Ronaldo, and when he signed, they were all floored," said Jowhara Faisal, a graphic designer and football fan in Riyadh.

"It was unimaginable for the world and honestly a proud moment for every Saudi. Now bringing in Messi — the Goat, World Cup champion and the best player in the world — you can only imagine our pride and excitement."

Messi has reportedly received a formal offer to join Al Hilal next season. Rumoured to be worth about $400 million a year, it would make him the highest-paid athlete in the world.

"All these big moves are because of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman," says Abdullah Albanawi, a Messi fan in Jeddah.

"It's a moment of pride for all Arabs. Ever since he came in and gave us the confidence, we dared to think bigger.

"I hope we get Messi. I love him and think he's the best player to ever exist. I would be the happiest man on the planet if he came over."

This Saudi businessman spent $2.6 million for a Ronaldo-Messi ticket

This month, Messi apologised to his current club Paris Saint-Germain after being suspended for making a trip to Saudi Arabia on what he "thought was a day off".

“I thought we were going to have a day off after the game as always," he said. "I had this trip organised and I couldn’t cancel it. I had already cancelled it before."

Messi, who was named the kingdom’s tourism ambassador in May last year, posted a picture on his social media of desert palms amid lush green fields.

It carried the caption: “Who thought Saudi has so much green? I love to explore its unexpected wonders whenever I can."

He is also seen exploring the capital, Riyadh, with his wife and children.

Updated: May 08, 2023, 8:35 PM