In what may have been the end of an era, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have played against each other for possibly the last time.
They both appeared in a representative game in Saudi Arabia, and both got on the scoresheet.
The pair have been rivals for the best part of 15 years, but this could well be the last time that they shared a pitch together, with the pair heading into the twilights of their careers, and with Ronaldo now having left European football.
The match which was played in Riyadh featured Paris Saint-Germain against a Riyadh Allstar XI.
It was a thrilling contest which ended 5 -4 in favour of the visitors, despite them playing with ten men for much of the game, after Juan Bernat was given a straight red for a professional foul.
Familiar protagonists on the scoresheet
It took just two minutes for Messi to get on the scoresheet, after he was played in by Neymar. But Ronaldo was quick to respond with two of his own, converting the first from the penalty spot, and then being the fastest to react when his initial header came back off the woodwork.
Kylian Mbappé, who scored a hat-trick in the World Cup final for France, but still ended on the losing side, also got on the scoresheet, again from the penalty spot.
Sergio Ramos, Marquinhos, and Hugo Ekitike scored the other goals for the French side, whilst Jang Hyun-soo and Anderson Talisca also netted for the All-Stars.
Messi and Ronaldo were both substituted just after the hour mark.
Ronaldo’s debut in Saudi Arabia
Although Ronaldo signed for Saudi club Al-Nassr, he has yet to make his debut for them because he is still serving the ban he received for smashing a fan’s mobile phone after a defeat to Everton, whilst he was playing for Manchester United.
He will make his competitive debut for them on Sunday when they host Ettifaq in the Saudi Premier League.
This was a demonstration, though, of what local fans can expect, and was an indication that he is not here just for the money – although the sum he is reported to be earning – £62 million a year – does not hurt either.
Whilst the careers of the two men have so long been entwined, they are now on divergent paths after they ended 2022 in vastly different fashions. Messi was leading his country to World Cup glory, and won the Golden Ball in Qatar.
Ronaldo meanwhile, left Manchester United by mutual consent after giving an explosive interview to a British TV station that bared all about his second time at Old Trafford. He then was dropped from the Portugal team during the World Cup for disciplinary reasons, and ended up signing for the Saudi team because he could not find another club in Europe willing to take him.
He will turn 38 next month, and, having signed a two and a half year deal with Al-Nassr, has already indicated that he is “done with European football.”
Messi is out of contract with PSG in the summer, but looks set to extend his stay in Paris.
He is 35 now, and still, theoretically, has several more years left at the top, but has already indicated that he will not be involved in the next World Cup finals in 2026, which will be jointly staged by the USA, Canada, and Mexico.
The match itself has been heavily criticised by human rights group, who have described it as a prime example of sportswashing. They have accused the Saudi government of deliberating employing s strategy of backing major sporting events to deflect attention from the country’s human rights record.
A similar accusation was labelled at Qatar, hosts of the recent World Cup, and it is perhaps no coincidence, that PSG are effectively owned by the Qatari sovereign wealth fund.
Ronaldo has been forced to deny suggestions that although he will act as an ambassador for Saudi football, which does not extend to supporting their own bid to host a World Cup.
And it should not be overlooked, that it is Saudi Arabia who are now the majority owners of Newcastle United, making them potentially the richest club in the world.
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