The End Is Near: Lionel Messi And Cristiano Ronaldo's Saudi Arabian Swansongs

We may have received our clearest indication yet that the Messi/Ronaldo era is over
10:00, 07 May 2023

The two defining players of a generation, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, probably didn’t expect it to end like this. When you’re on top of the world you expect the ride to last forever. The Ballon d’Ors and Champions Leagues to circle you endlessly as if attracted by the gravitational pull of your immense talent. But then you hear the clatter of ornate silverware hitting concrete floor. You don’t stop receiving invites to the ceremonies but you no longer end your night with fresh bling on your mantle. Messi and Ronaldo must have known deep down they were human, but surely neither expected to be reminded in such humbling terms.

Both Messi and Ronaldo are passing through Saudi Arabia on their way out of the sport. It feels almost appropriate for two players whose every move has been analysed in the context of the other. Messi has drawn the scorn of his employers, Paris Saint-Germain, by travelling to the Gulf state without permission. Ronaldo meanwhile wants to leave the country he only made his home five months ago. Two ignominious endings centred on the same country.


Perhaps the biggest indication of the tumbling status of these two icons is the treatment Messi has received from his PSG paymasters. The Argentina international has been suspended without pay for two weeks, missing two Ligue 1 games as a result. Messi is still in possession of some of his finer abilities, enough to have used them to bring home a World Cup last winter. But it is hard to envisage PSG risking giving ground in the title race to Marseille if Messia was close to the peak of his powers.

The two week’s wages will be of no consequence to Messi. Part of the reason for his visit to Saudi Arabia was in his role as a Middle East tourism ambassador. Forbes reports that Messi pulls down €30 million a year for performing that role. But the World Cup winner’s interest in Saudi extends beyond boosting holiday visitors. Messi seems to envisage his playing career ending, or at least continuing, in the country too.

Could this be the next chapter of his “anything you can do…” tete-a-tete with Ronaldo? Perhaps, but if Messi paid closer attention to the travails of ‘CR7’ he’d see a cautionary tale not an aspirational one. Sure, the goals have come. Bar a poor spell at the start of this season for Manchester United, they always do. At the time of writing, Ronaldo has scored 12 goals in 15 games since signing for Al-Nassr.


But Ronaldo’s Saudi story has played out not like the triumphant flag-planting in a new land that David Beckham’s revolutionary MLS adventure was. Rather it has felt like a consolation prize. The begrudgingly accepted upshot of thinking he deserved better than United and yet not securing anything even acceptably worse. He’s a big fish in a small pond, sure. But it’s a pond nobody cares to watch Ronaldo swim in.

Ronaldo was likely expecting to be treated like the all-conquering hero of soccer in Saudi Arabia. He probably thought the nation’s fans would treat him like an A-lister, staring in quiet awe at his every move. Instead, the followers of the Saudi Pro League have largely treated him like a rival player. It was patronising to expect them to do anything else. They mock Al-Nassr’s big money buy because he doesn’t play for them, as it should be. Ronaldo is not god’s gift to football.

He so sorely wants to be though, which is apparently the driving force behind the fact he is looking for a return to Europe. In truth, Ronaldo never really wanted to go anywhere else. He left United with talk of moves to Napoli and Sporting CP swirling. But the former has just won Serie A without him for the first time in three decades while his boyhood club publicly distanced themselves from the move. After the boom and bust of his Old Trafford return, the 38-year-old had begun to look like damaged goods.

Messi isn’t quite there yet. The World Cup win has added a layer of sheen to his waning days. The petty fallouts at PSG have faded into the background as the greatest player of his generation has lifted football’s ultimate prize. But Messi knows now he isn’t that Messi. They may never stop calling him the GOAT, but the “...Of All Time” part of that phrase has never been louder. 

The world belongs to Erling Haaland now. To Messi’s PSG teammate Kylian Mbappe. Victor Osimhen might be joining them soon, so too Rafael Leao. Even England’s own Jude Bellingham could have a say in the destination of future Ballon d’Ors. But for Messi and Ronaldo, one aiming for Saudi riches and the other desperate to leave the country, it’s the end. 

Nobody remembers the greats for what they do at this stage. Messi will always be immortalised holding up the World Cup, like Diego Maradona before him. His likely Saudi Pro League denouement will be no better remembered than Maradona’s mid-90s coda at Boca Juniors. George Best lives forever in United red, not Dunstable Town white. Paul Gascoigne appears on tattoos and murals wearing the Three Lions of England, not the Pilgrim yellow of Boston United. Football has a way of enshrining its heroes, no matter where they end up. They’ll live forever, but their Saudi sojourns are the clearest indication yet that the history books are exactly where Messi and Ronaldo belong.

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