First match in Saudi Arabia: circus act with Cristiano Ronaldo

VOn a “ticket beyond imagination”, the lucky buyer, Saudi businessman Mushref al-Ghamdi, wrote on Twitter. This was probably the case for the price: the equivalent of around 2.5 million euros for a friendly match. On Thursday, Cristiano Ronaldo took on his nemesis, new world champion Lionel Messi. In a stadium with second division capacity west of the Saudi capital Riyadh. Ronaldo in a Saudi club selection, Messi with Paris St Germain.

After all, al-Ghamdi had purchased locker room access with his VIP ticket at a charity auction. It was Ronaldo’s first appearance on the Saudi turf since signing a contract with capital club Al-Nassr which runs until mid-2025 and is expected to earn him the equivalent of more than 200 million euros.

It could have been worse for Ronaldo

Thursday’s game was also a source of ridicule for the aging world star, who had been introduced with royal pomp by Al-Nassr as “the greatest athlete alive” and boasted shamelessly that he, Cristiano Ronaldo, was one of the best in Europe. I succeeded in everything and I am now looking for a new challenge.

It seemed a bit strange given the many reports that he would have preferred to end up at a club he could have done something with in Europe. Just like Messi or Kylian Mbappé, who also played for PSG. For both of them, the kick didn’t seem like a big deal in sports terms. Britain’s “Mirror” compared the game to “a visit to the Harlem Globetrotters”, a basketball circus team.

Of course, it could have been worse for Ronaldo. The Saudi league is one of the Gulf leagues that can least be accused of being a frivolous league. The population of the kingdom is young, eager for fun – and passionate about football. There is a culture of vocal fans, even a “Clasico”.

However, it has nothing to do with Ronaldo’s new club but will be played between Al-Ittihad from the coastal city of Jeddah and Al-Hilal from Riyadh. The latter club merged with the Portuguese side for the spectacular match against PSG, although the two clubs are actually linked in a typical city football rivalry. In this regard at least, Ronaldo has pulled off a small miracle of Saudi football.

Human rights campaigners have not stopped at advice hinting at Ronaldo’s loss of prominence as a footballer. They criticized the friendly match as a “sportswashing” event, with which the authoritarian kingdom whitewashed its human rights record. Al-Nassr denied that Ronaldo is a follow-up task to support Saudi Arabia’s bid for the 2030 World Cup, which the country is pursuing in a notable alliance with Egypt and Greece.

Messi is already a tourism ambassador for the country, which is also remarkable as his employer is in the very wealthy Emirate of Qatar and both countries have long been as green as Ronaldo and Messi. Even though the power of football to unite people at the World Cup in Qatar apparently extended to both countries – a few years ago PSG would hardly have played a friendly match in Riyadh. By the way, it ended 5:4 for Paris.

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