Messi vs. Ronaldo Offers a Window Into the Saudi-Qatar Rivalry

Just when it looked like there would never be another opportunity to watch Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi face off on the pitch, the two global soccer stars will square off in the middle of the European soccer season—just not on the European continent.

Last month, the Saudi Arabian team Al Nassr FC signed Ronaldo for $75 million a year for the next three and a half seasons. And in August 2021, Messi joined Qatari-owned Paris Saint Germain after 20 years at F.C. Barcelona, for $41 million annually.

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On Thursday, they will meet in a highly anticipated exhibition match between Saudi Arabian stars—made up of the best players on Al Nassr and Al Hilal—and PSG, held at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. While it’s the first time since 2020 the pair will play each other, the game, on some level, is less about the fading stars and more about the rising Middle East powers.

Saudi Arabia has been building an investment strategy around sports, buying soccer teams and hosting major events, including a Formula One Grand Prix in Jeddah. Just last week, the Kingdom hosted the Spanish Super Cup, a four-team, three-match tournament between the winner of the Copa del Rey tournament and the top three regular-season teams in LaLiga, Spain’s top division.

Qatar, meanwhile, recently hosted the FIFA World Cup. Its investment portfolio includes PSG, which is also home to Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, and a minority stake in Portuguese club S.C. Braga.

The competing interests have stoked bad feelings at times. In 2017, Riyadh and Doha had friction when Saudi Arabian-backed broadcaster beoutQ pirated Qatari television station beIN’s transmission, including English Premier League games.

“We do know that tensions between the two are never completely extinguished,” professor Simon Chadwick, who teaches sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School in Paris, said in an interview. “Indeed, with Saudi Arabia’s sporting ambitions growing exponentially and Qatar keen to build upon its World Cup hosting success, an implicit battle for Gulf sporting supremacy is already mounting.”

But the Messi-Ronaldo showdown signals something of a détente. “This match means that the wounds are healed, and all is well, at least for the time being,” Chadwick said. “Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already exploring investment opportunities in sport [separately]. There are some very intriguing rumors about acquisitions in both soccer and motorsport. There’s more to come; we’re not yet at peak Gulf.”

Friendly or not, the competition between the middle eastern neighbors is working to the advantage of the match’s marquee players.

“For Ronaldo and Messi, they’ll be mindful that there is not much left on their playing careers and retirement will see their incomes plummet significantly,” Chadwick said. “So, they are in the business of revenue harvesting, one last big payday before the vagaries of retirement confront them.”

Both Ronaldo and Messi left Spanish clubs that made them superstars after facing accusations of wrongdoing by Spanish tax authorities. Messi’s problems started in the 2013-14 season after he was found guilty of defrauding tax authorities of 4.1 million euros (then $4.6 million). The Argentine soccer star paid his debt and stayed with F.C. Barcelona until 2020. Ronaldo, a five-time Ballon D’Or winner, was also accused of tax evasion in Spain between 2010-14, when he played for Barcelona’s rival, Real Madrid; he also paid a fine and walked free.

Whatever their past troubles, the duo remains in demand. The highly anticipated friendly reportedly had more than two million ticket requests and an auction for a VIP ticket sold for $2.6 million (10 million Saudi riyals). The proceeds went to a government-backed organization that helps Saudis in need.

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The winner, Mushref bin Ahmed Al-Ghamdi, a real estate mogul from Jeddah, will meet Messi, Mbappé, Neymar and Ronaldo, visit both teams’ locker rooms, and even line up alongside the winning team during its official team photo.

Thursday’s match will be Ronaldo’s first match since joining Al Nassr. The squad includes the Saudi player Salem al Dawsari who scored against Argentina during the World Cup group stage, the only match the eventual champions lost in the tournament.

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