Could Lionel Messi join Cristiano Ronaldo in Saudi Arabia with £245m-a-year deal?
The Saudi Pro League burst into the wider football world’s conscience last month when Cristiano Ronaldo joined Al-Nassr after signing an eye-watering deal worth £175m-a-year.
Having previously been seen as just a minor league in the Middle East – since signing one of the sport’s greatest-ever players – other stars such as Luka Modric, Marco Reus and Sergio Busquets have been linked with moves to Saudi Arabia as they wind down their illustrious careers.
And now, there have even been rumours that Ronaldo’s long-term rival on the pitch and in the ‘GOAT’ (greatest of all time) debate, Lionel Messi, could be joining him – with the Argentinian superstar reportedly lined up for a £245m-a-year deal to join Al-Nassr’s arch-rivals Al-Hilal.
Cristiano Ronaldo is set to play his first game in Saudi Arabia next week after joining Al-Nassr
He is set to be part of a Al-Nassr/Al-Hilal combined team that take on Lionel Messi’s PSG side
Ronaldo is yet to make his debut for his new club as he is serving a two-match FA suspension for slapping a phone out of an Everton fan’s hand last season while he played for Manchester United.
However, he is set to feature for the first time when he takes part in a friendly against Messi’s PSG next Thursday.
A combined Al-Nassr/Al-Hilal outfit will take on the European giants with Ronaldo’s coach at his new club, Rudi Garcia, confirming the 37-year-old will play.
Understandably, this has created significant excitement around the world that the two great rivals will meet again on the pitch with the pair facing off in several iconic clashes over the years.
The game will be played at the King Fahd Stadium, which has a capacity of 68,752, with fans understandably scrambling for tickets.
There has been significant clamour for tickets for the friendly which also is set to see other PSG stars such as Kylian Mbappe and Neymar face off with Messi against Ronaldo and Co
MESSI VS RONALDO ON THE PITCH
How do they compare?
ESPN reported the match had more than two million online requests for tickets, with the game selling out within minutes after going on sale.
Furthermore, a ‘golden ticket’ for the clash is currently selling for £2.2m, with businessman Mushref Al-Ghamdi leading the bidding in the auction.
The Saudi General Entertainment Authority revealed the ‘golden ticket’ will give its holder ‘beyond imagination’ privileges’, including attending the awards ceremony, access to both teams changing rooms and a place at a dinner attended by each side.
For Messi – who signed a reported £25m-a-year deal to promote Saudi Arabia as an ambassador in May – the game will give him the chance to decide whether he wants to ply his trade in the kingdom in his next career move.
He made a goalscoring return to action for PSG on Wednesday in his first match since winning the World Cup last month, but his club future remains uncertain.
Messi has been linked with a sensational £245m-a-year deal to join Al-Nassr’s rivals Al-Hilal
The game will be Ronaldo’s first in Saudi Arabia and tickets reportedly sold-out in minutes
The Argentina captain’s deal is due to expire in June and, while he is said to have assured PSG that he will sign an extension, this interest from Saudi Arabia could put a spanner in the works of him staying in France.
Elsewhere, his boyhood club Barcelona along with MLS side Inter Miami have also been touted as possible destinations.
It was reported earlier this week that his father Jorge is rumoured to be in Riyadh for talks with Al-Hilal about the possibility of his son joining the club on a staggering £245m-a-year contract.
While the likelihood of Messi’s joining the Saudi side are still slim, it is a move the club would be desperate to make.
The appeal of Messi signing for Al-Hilal from a Saudi perspective is obvious. Not only is he one of the greatest players of all-time – but he is still at the top level – as demonstrated by his exploits in the World Cup in Qatar.
He captained Argentina to glory, scoring seven goals and laying on three assists in just seven games and he has been in fine form for PSG so far this season, with 27 goal contributions (13 goals and 14 assists) in 20 games.
Thursday’s game will be the first time the pair have faced each other since December 2020
A move would bring enormous status to Saudi Arabia with sport being seen as a way to boost its profile on the world stage and reduce its reliance on oil exports.
Several high-profile sporting events have been held in the kingdom over recent years such as heavyweight boxing bouts, a Formula One Grand Prix while they have funded the controversial LIV Golf Breakaway League.
Newcastle United are also owned by a Saudi-backed group, and the kingdom is currently hosting the Spanish Super Cup.
However, various human rights group have accused Saudi Arabia of sportswashing through these events, which pose as a distraction from its poor human rights record.
The kingdom has come under fire for its crackdown on freedom of expression as well as its use of the death penalty and treatment of migrant workers.
The potential appeal of having both Messi and Ronaldo in the Saudi Pro League is massive
Ronaldo was unveiled as an Al-Nassr player last week but had to serve a two-game suspension
If Messi was to join Al-Hilal, the presence of two of the greatest footballers ever would be a huge statement of intent from Saudi Arabia to boost their profile on the world stage.
Similarly, the aforementioned ambassadorial deal Messi signed last year adds further credence that he could be on the move there.
This agreement was mainly centred around promoting tourism within the kingdom, but the national objective of the country is tied around ‘Vision 2030’.
The Vision 2030 is described by the Saudi government as ‘a unique transformative economic and social reform blueprint that is opening up to the world’.
A major part of this vision is reportedly heavily tied to hosting the 2030 World Cup (in collaboration with Greece and Egypt).
Promoting tourism also does much to aid this whole strategy implemented by the kingdom.
In a potential bid for the 2030 showpiece event, which will be decided next year by FIFA, to have two of the world’s most recognisable footballers plying their trade in their domestic league would be a huge asset – even if, as reported, neither player had a specific responsibility in their contract to help with the bid.
Messi was first promoted as a tourism ambassador for the kingdom when he visited Jeddah in May.
At the time, Saudi minister of tourism Ahmed al-Khateeb tweeted: ‘This is not his first visit to the kingdom and it will not be the last.’ The Visit Saudi website now also has a specific Messi page.
The PSG star also has links to a Saudi figure named Turki Al-Sheikh, who is reportedly a close adviser to Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and is the chairman of the Saudi General Entertainment Authority.
Within this role, his remit is to promote social and economic growth within Saudi Arabia.
Messi has sent messages to Al-Sheikh on social media and even publicly wished him happy birthday.
This only increases the links between the kingdom and the player, meaning a move to Al-Hilal would tie in with their strategy perfectly.
Messi signed a deal to promote Saudi Arabia as a tourism ambassador in May of last year
The opportunity to renew the Ronaldo-Messi rivalry would also do wonders for football in Saudi.
They have faced each other 36 times for club and country with Messi leading the way with 16 wins to Ronaldo’s 11 victories.
Similarly, Messi edges his rival in goals during those meetings – netting 22 compared to Ronaldo’s 21.
They last faced each other when Ronaldo scored twice in Juventus’s 3-0 win over Barcelona in the Champions League in December 2020.
The rivalry between the pair was at its fiercest during Ronaldo’s nine-year stint with Real Madrid between 2009-2018 when he was competing for domestic and European trophies against Messi at Barcelona.
There were several iconic encounters over the years and this is further demonstrated by the players being the top two scorers in Champions League history.
Ronaldo has 140 goals in 183 games – and he has since declared his career in Europe is finished – while Messi has scored 129 goals in 161 games.
Messi’s father Jorge (right) is said to be in Riyadh to discuss Messi potentially joining Al-Hilal
A move to Saudi Arabia would enable the iconic on-pitch Messi-Ronaldo rivalry to resume
Similarly, between 2008-2021, Messi or Ronaldo won the Ballon d’Or 12 out of 13 times, but Messi edges out his rival by seven to five.
The only winner during that period that wasn’t either Messi or Ronaldo was Modric in 2018 after his exploits at that year’s World Cup with Croatia when they were runners-up to France.
Highlighting their legendary status and reach, Ronaldo and Messi are also the most followed people on Instagram.
The Portuguese star edges out the Argentinian however, with 533m followers to Messi’s 418m.
Having two players with a combined Instagram reach of almost 1bn would be a significant statement of intent from the Saudi league.
Aside from the geo-political element, the presence of Ronaldo and Messi playing football in the kingdom would also help to develop the sport.
MESSI VS RONALDO OFF THE PITCH
How do they compare?
Salary (per year)
Salary data according to Forbes – Ronaldo was earning £83.6m per year prior to his move to Al-Nassr
Seeing Messi line-up against Ronaldo in the Saudi Pro League is a tantalising prospect for fans
As seen through the wild celebrations after Saudi Arabia shocked Argentina in the World Cup, there is great appetite for football in the kingdom, while the national team is also making great progress.
Under the nomadic Frenchman Herve Renard, they have risen from 70th to 49th in the FIFA world rankings, and impressed with their performances in Qatar.
Next Thursday, Messi and Ronaldo will renew their historic rivalry which saw them establish themselves as the two best players on the planet from 2009-2018.
The exhibition match between Al-Nassr/Al-Hilal and PSG was expected to be their final showdown, but rumours of Messi joining Al-Hilal is a tantalising prospect for football fans.
Clashes between Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal are considered Saudi’s equivalent of El Clasico, and seeing Messi and Ronaldo on opposite sides would only add extra spice to the occasion.
There’s plenty of work to do for Messi to be even close to joining Ronaldo out in the kingdom but it’s it’s the match-up the super-rich in Saudi Arabia have been waiting for – and they’d be prepared to pay a remarkable amount of money to make it a regular fixture.
Source of data and images: dailymail