Across the Arabian peninsula there is a desire to sell the region as a viable tourist destination. The hospitality, potential visitors are told, is second to none. Hard to disagree after the welcome rolled out for Cristiano Ronaldo in Saudi Arabia.
His debut in a Riyadh selection-box team came against full-strength Paris Saint-Germain in a friendly last night.
In the first half Ronaldo was awarded a dubious penalty, saw an opponent sent off even more questionably and scored his second equaliser in the sixth of three advertised stoppage-time minutes.
What more can we offer you Cristiano? Complimentary mint? New watch? An extra floor on your house?
PSG did their bit, too, Neymar rolling a gentle penalty into the arms of Team Ronaldo’s goalkeeper, but eventually the French team trundled to a 5-4 win despite their man deficit.
This was Ronaldo’s first match since his move to the Middle East, appearing in a compilation XI. It was the very best of Saudi Arabia’s two most successful clubs, Al Nassr and Al Hilal: Al That’s what I call football.
It could also be the sordid final chapter of our era’s greatest football rivalry. Ronaldo v Lionel Messi sustained an astonishingly long peak, from their first meeting in the 2009 Champions League final when Messi’s Barcelona beat Ronaldo’s Manchester United. Eight years later Messi scored a late winner in a Clasico at the Bernabeu, parading the named side of his shirt in front of livid home fans.
Since then both have been in decline as club footballers and the level Ronaldo has now reached was written all over his shirt. The font spelling out his name was an ugly italic script, like a high-street card shop. The shirt itself was a shimmering sky blue and over-sponsored mess. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in the Champions League any more.
Messi scored first after three minutes, helped by a goalkeeper seeming to jump out of the way of his shot. Half an hour later Ronaldo was thumped in the jaw by a flying elbow from PSG goalkeeper Keylor Navas as both jumped in vain for the same free-kick. Penalty, said Qatari referee Abdulrahman Al-Jassim, to widespread surprise and a striking lack of VAR input.
With a shiner growing beneath his left eye, this was the moment the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry entered its tired Rocky V phase. Where and when will it end? It could not be settled by a Louis Vuitton-sponsored chess match before Qatar 2022, although Messi will point to his World Cup as conclusive proof of superiority.
But do not underestimate the appetite for endless narrative extension. In the age of infinite superhero franchises we can expect hologram Ronaldo to face robot Messi in metaverse arenas until roughly the date when our earth is consumed by the sun.
Ultimately, this earth-bound meeting in the infraverse was French outpost of Qatari state versus the Saudi Al-stars. It was quite tough to know who to cheer for. Ronaldo has lost some sympathy for his choice of retirement plan, but Messi is not averse to a bit of paid partnership himself.
“Was impressed by Al Balad, a beautiful Unesco historical site that mixes charm with heritage and provides an unforgettable experience #VisitSaudi,” he dutifully wrote in his role as a Saudi tourism ambassador last year. No word yet on how the spice market compares with Doha’s, but sure the debate rages in his WhatsApp with David Beckham.
Perhaps conscious that any pictures of the two together could be extremely lucrative, interactions between Messi and Ronaldo were limited to a courteous slap of hands in the tunnel before the game.
Ronaldo was substituted off after 60 minutes, after Kylian Mbappe made it 4-3 from the penalty spot, score and game fast becoming untethered from reality. Messi followed a minute later, another tiny act of one-upmanship in the forever war.
Both seemed happy, especially Ronaldo, who spent the game smiling more than he had in months. He appeared satisfied with his return of two goals, a man-of-the-match trophy and several no-look backheels.
Perhaps for all the talk of sad ends to legacies, this is what he wants? To perform tricks in no-stakes friendlies. To collect some more commemorative plaques. To spark joy. And, of course, to be paid for it.