Two giants on diverging roads will come together again in a friendly match in Riyadh on Thursday night. If anything could quite capture the surreal nature of the reunion, it is that one man has paid £2.2million to see it.
The chap, Mushref al-Ghamdi, is a real estate mogul. We’re told his ticket to watch one more dance between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi came via a charity auction entitled ‘Beyond Imagination’, and that it will gain him entry to the dressing rooms for pictures and some such.
This is Saudi Arabia, of course, and this is sport in 2023. It is a kingdom where status matters and no price is too great, and in everything from football to Formula One, from golf to boxing, it has found realms where few questions are too tricky for a good deal. Which takes us to Ronaldo, whose three weeks here have already earned him close to £10m. Beyond imagination? That doesn’t fully cover it, somehow.
Cristiano Ronaldo is set to play his first match since joining Al-Nassr last month
He will be going up against his long-term rival Lionel Messi, possibly for the final time
And yet here we are, watching the beginning of his closing chapters as a professional footballer. A footballer whose past eclipses almost all others in the history of ball games but whose present is a curious thing indeed.
This match, played against Messi’s Paris Saint-Germain as part of an ‘all-star’ hybrid of his club Al Nassr and their rivals Al Hilal, will be the first he contests in his new home.
Unlike Messi, he isn’t just passing through. And there’s an inevitable comparison there, because with these two greats, one will always be seen in the light of the other.
For Messi, the game is part of his victory lap, and no doubt tied to his sideline gig as an ambassador for Saudi’s tourism drive. He arrives as an athlete on top of the world and finally has that one particular medal to settle a number of arguments.
For Ronaldo, it is quite something else, coming five weeks after his World Cup ended in tears as a marginalised substitute with Portugal, and nine after his Manchester United career was terminated for the draining of his spleen to Piers Morgan.
Ronaldo was marginalised at the World Cup as Portugal went out in the quarter-finals
Meanwhile, Messi won the World Cup and the Golden Ball as he had a dream tournament
To think, it has been seven years since he responded to criticisms from Xavi by saying: ‘Xavi plays in Qatar. He has no relevance.’
Needless to say, Ronaldo can move in unexpected ways, but relevance is a relative term.
In a sporting sense, he is indisputably seeing out his playing days among a cast of team-mates largely unknown beyond Saudi Arabia, and is doing so in a division that is the equivalent of a walk from Manchester to Mecca away from the Champions League he won five times. But in other contexts, he might just be the most relevant of all sportsmen, even at 37, when you consider the forces that recruited him.
For £173m per year for two-and-a-half seasons, he will be used as a symbol and a message, the purity and direction of which depends on your point of view. That recurring question of sportswashing, and those around human rights in Saudi Arabia, has accompanied this most eye-catching of scenarios, just as it has the kingdom’s huge involvement in other sports across recent years.
To speak this week to Minky Worden, a director at Human Rights Watch, was to hear an unequivocal opinion.
She told Sportsmail: ‘Situations like this attempt to change the conversation from human rights repression.’
Ronaldo and Messi facing each other in Riyadh will be a surreal stage for the iconic pair
The Saudi position is to dispel those claims and point instead to Vision 2030, which is typically abbreviated as the drive to diversify from oil, comprising a push for a healthier population.
Sportsmail met on Wednesday with the general secretary of the Saudi Arabia Football Federation, Ibrahim Al Kassim.
His estimate is that 80 per cent of their population follow the sport, and that Ronaldo will serve as an ‘inspiration’ in a plan for the country to reach the top 20 in FIFA’s rankings by 2034.
Ronaldo and Messi have had some great battles over the years, and this could be the final one
When we asked about suggestions of sportswashing, he said: ‘Do you think if it was sportswashing, we would have won against Argentina in Qatar? No, it is about the development of football and Saudi Arabia.’
Some will raise eyebrows, many will just watch the goals.
Time will tell where a bid to stage the World Cup fits in all this, and likewise how much more of the sporting landscape will be bought up by the Saudis. Ronaldo is clearly the biggest coup to date in that latter regard, and by extension his relevancy is potentially bigger than ever.
Who knows what his old rival makes of it all. Though if the whispers are to be believed, it might not be too long before he is back in these parts — and for more than friendlies and tourism ads.