How Cristiano Ronaldo's transfer to Saudi Arabia makes a move for Messi plausible

Thursday's high-profile exhibition could pave the way for the Argentine to follow his old foe and sign for Riyadh rivals Al Hilal

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Much like careers that converged a decade or more at the very summit of football, for the majority on Thursday night in Riyadh, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi vied with one another for the limelight.

At what appeared a near sell-out King Fahd Stadium, an estimated 68,000 fans serenaded two of the greatest footballers to have ever played the game. Paris Saint-Germain were in town to take on a Riyadh Allstar XI and, while Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Achraf Hakimi had their obvious admirers, it was clear from the outset who most have come to witness.

Reports suggested there had been in excess of two million online ticket requests. Apparently, one businessman forked out 10 million Saudi riyals ($2.6m) for a one-of-a-kind ticket that came with extraordinary perks, including photo ops with the Allstar team captained by Ronaldo and a Paris side headlined by Messi.

At 2pm on gameday, “Messi” was the top-trending subject on Twitter in Saudi Arabia, almost one month to the day after he sat perched at football’s peak, holding aloft the World Cup trophy in Qatar.

At King Fahd Stadium, excitable supporters competed pre-match for airtime on the jumbo television screens, almost all either parading “Ronaldo 7” Al Nassr or Portugal jerseys – he continues as captain of his country – or “Messi 10” Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), Barcelona – his former club – or Argentina shirts. At one point, a huge roar greeted a sizeable Nassr banner being displayed, with Ronaldo in his new club’s blue and yellow alongside the Saudi Pro League leaders’ badge.

In retaliation, and such is a rivalry that has consumed football since the two men with 12 Ballon d’Or trophies between them first rose to prominence, the next “Messi 10” Argentina jersey elicited an even louder reaction. “Messi! Messi! Messi!” the crowd chanted.

From there, the give-and-take continued, through the warm-ups, the initial touches of the ball once the exhibition Riyadh Season Cup had begun, when Messi opened the scoring on two minutes, and when Ronaldo – as Ronaldo is wont to do – snatched back the spotlight with two goals later in the first half.

The superstars, for that is what they are - with 535 million, Ronaldo resides as the most followed person on Instagram, Messi second with 420m – where withdrawn just after the hour, but still they were never far from view.

When the TV cameras beamed images of both on the big screen from their respective benches, they were greeted by a cacophony of noise. Ronaldo grinned wide; later he blew a kiss, prompting his name to reverberate around the arena.

Typically more understated, Messi glanced at himself depicted high above and simply smiled. His supporters called out his name repeatedly, making the bow-down, we’re-not-worthy gesture that has transported from Barcelona to Buenos Aires, to Paris, to Qatar and, now, Saudi Arabia.

The hope for many is that it would not be the last time it is experienced in the country. It may seem fanciful, and an extension to his expiring PSG contract remains most likely, but Messi has been linked strongly with an incredibly lucrative move to Al Hilal, Nassr's cross-city rivals and current champions of both Saudi Arabia and Asia.

Ironically, it feels that Ronaldo has made his long-time foe's arrival more plausible. The former Sporting, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus forward signed with Nassr last month, agreeing to a two-and-a-half-year contract reportedly worth upwards of $200m per season. The nine-time Saudi champions hailed the acquisition as “more than history in the making”.

In a tweet to mark the moment, Saudi minister of sports Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal pledged to “support the rest of our clubs for quality deals with international stars soon”.

It suggests a compelling period ahead for the 16-team Saudi Pro League, whose clubs are permitted to register eight foreign players. At present, there are 128 expatriate players in the division, with 48 nationalities represented.

Ronaldo’s recruitment, though, has raised the bar in terms of the calibre of footballer that presumably can be enticed. In the past three weeks, in the slipstream of the five-time Uefa Champions League winner's signing, the names mentioned to potentially follow have included Real Madrid stars Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Eden Hazard, Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, PSG’s Sergio Ramos, Liverpool’s Robert Firmino and Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante.

Speaking to Reuters this week, football finance expert Neil Joyce said: "The Ronaldo effect could take hold in that area and, given the success of the World Cup in that region, I think it makes a lot of sense for Ronaldo and the value that it can bring in the not-too-distant future.

"You're going to see a series of relatively high-profile stars that maybe are entering the latter stages of their career, probably moving over to Saudi Arabia."

Of course, Messi represents another level altogether. The record seven-time Ballon d’Or winner, whose contribution in delivering Argentina the most recent World Cup has arguably elevated him to greatest-of-all-time status – look away, Ronaldo – has an obvious connection to Saudi as the kingdom’s tourism ambassador.

Last week, reports claimed Messi was offered just shy of $300m per year to join Hilal once his contract with PSG expires at the end of the season.

On Wednesday, when asked about the possibility of the Argentina captain plying his trade in the Saudi top flight, the country's football federation general secretary, Ibrahim Al Kassim, said: “We are not involved in any kind of agreements or negotiations between the clubs and players.

“If you ask me about Messi coming to Saudi Arabia, who would not love to see Messi playing in their country? Of course, everyone would love to see again Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi playing in the same league. But we are not involved in that.”

Cristiano Ronaldo, right, runs with the ball during an exhibition match in Riyadh as PSG forward Lionel Messi looks on. AP Photo

Echoing Joyce's remarks, and underlining the newfound interest outside the kingdom in its football, Al Kassim added: “Now that Cristiano Ronaldo is here, that will also open the door for so many other players who can join the league. So that will also add toward the improvement of the Saudi league and Saudi Arabia.”

Buoyed by Ronaldo, whose official Nassr debut comes on Sunday, and thus bullish now in landing Messi, fans continue to dream.

Outside King Fahd Stadium on Thursday night, Riyadh-born engineering student Mohammed Abdullah said he would even set aside his life-long allegiance to Nassr to welcome Messi at neighbours Hilal.

“If Messi comes to Al Hilal, I would not be surprised," Abdullah said. "Al Hilal and Al Nassr are the top clubs in Riyadh. For sure, Hilal is a very big team and if they want a player, they can afford it.

“I’m already proud of my country, but I would be even more proud if we bring Ronaldo and Messi. With Ronaldo, this is a new level of excitement, not only for the young people in Saudi Arabia – all the eyes of the world are on Saudi football. This hits different.”

Imagine, then, the impact of Messi, too.

Another Riyadh native, Khalid Al Daher, is convinced his club will sign the 35-year-old playmaker, if only because football fandom has long encouraged a healthy appetite for one-upmanship.

“For sure, if Nassr have Ronaldo, we must have Messi,” Al Daher said. “Messi will come in the summer. Believe me. Hilal are the biggest club in Asia. So they must have the best player also.”

Updated: January 20, 2023, 6:00 PM