Cristiano Ronaldo in dig at old rival Lionel Messi: Saudi league is better than MLS

Portuguese superstar reiterates his commitment to new club and rules out return to European football

Cristiano Ronaldo in action during Al Nassr's 5-0 friendly defeat against Celta Vigo at Estadio Algarve in Portugal on July 17, 2023. Getty
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Cristiano Ronaldo has played down the significance of his old rival Lionel Messi's move to the United States by claiming that the Saudi Pro League is stronger than Major League Soccer.

The 38-year-old also closed the door on ever returning to European football and insists he is totally committed to his Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr.

Messi was unveiled as MLS club Inter Miami's superstar new signing on Sunday with thousands of fans turning out in the pouring rain to welcome their new hero, who turned down the chance to join Ronaldo in the kingdom this season.

Hopes are high in the US that the arrival of the 36-year-old seven-time Ballon d'Or winner, who spent the last two seasons in the French capital with Paris Saint-Germain, can be a transformative one for the league.

Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham described the signing as a “dream come true” for the club, while MLS commissioner Don Garber said: “We have no doubt that Lionel will show the world that MLS can be a league of choice for the best players in the game.

But Ronaldo – speaking after Al Nassr's 5-0 friendly humbling against Celta Vigo in Portugal on Monday – believes that his presence in the Middle East is the start of something special for the Saudi league.

“100 per cent. It’s a fact,” Ronaldo said. “It was going to take a year, but it was six months. I was wrong for six months.

“But I knew this was going to happen because in the Italian league, when I went there, it was also dead and then rejuvenated.

“Where Cristiano goes, it generates greater interest and I knew it was going to be like that. I’m sure that next season more stars will go there [to Saudi Arabia].

“In one year, more and more top players will come to Saudi. In a year the Saudi league will overtake the Turkish league and Dutch league."

Ronaldo also insisted he would not be interested in a move to the MLS: “I think the Saudi league is much better than the United States. My team is Al Nassr.”

Ronaldo joined Al Nassr in January following his exit from Manchester United and said in May that he believed the Saudi Pro League would go on to become one of the top five leagues in the world but would “need time, players and infrastructure”.

This summer has seen a host of elite players move to Saudi Arabia, including current Ballon d'Or winner Karim Benzema from Real Madrid, Ronaldo's Portuguese teammate Ruben Neves from Wolves and Chelsea midfielder N'Golo Kante.

The could yet be joined by Liverpool midfielders Jordan Henderson and Fabinho.

When asked if would ever consider a move back to European football before the end of his career, Ronaldo added: “No, that door is completely closed. I’m already 38-and-a-half years old and it’s not worth it.

“In my way of seeing football, I think Europe has lost a lot of quality. The only league that for me has a lot of quality and is at a higher level than all the others is the Premier League.

“The Spanish league does not have that great quality. The Portuguese league is a good league, but it is not a top, top league. The German league I think has also lost a lot. I’m sure I won’t play in Europe again. I want to play in Saudi Arabia.”

His club, meanwhile, will be hoping the only way is up after their pre-season thrashing at Estadio Algarve against Celta Vigo, who finished their last campaign 13th in La Liga.

After a goalless first half, Al Nassr capitulated in spectacular fashion with Norwegian forward Jorgen Strand Larsen and Spanish winger Miguel Rodriguez both grabbing doubles.

Captain Ronaldo played 45 minutes while Croatian midfielder Marcelo Brozovic, who joined from Serie A side Inter Milan at the start of July, was given nearly an hour of game time.

The Riyadh-based club – who finished second behind champions Al Ittihad in the Saudi Pro League last season – also face daunting friendlies against Benfica, Messi's former club PSG and Champions League finalists Inter.

“The plan was for me to play 45 minutes today,” Ronaldo said. “Against Benfica [on Thursday], I might play 60 or 70 minutes. It is better to fine-tune the machine little by little to reach the best form.”

Updated: July 18, 2023, 12:47 PM