The lights dimmed, and a silver moon appeared on the screens overhead. As a funeral march blared over the PA, hooded figures raised flaming torches aloft, and the iconic figure of The Undertaker loomed out of the darkness.
But this was not WrestleMania, but the equally absurd extravaganza of the Riyadh Season Cup final. As rival teams Al Nassr and Al Hilal prepared to face each other in the Saudi showpiece, The Undertaker held aloft the trophy with stony-faced solemnity, as if it was the urn that carried his once corporeal form.
Lining up just a few yards away, Cristiano Ronaldo looked delighted. The irony of The Undertaker surfacing here, in the football graveyard of the Saudi Pro League, appeared lost on all present.
The Saudi organisers certainly demonstrated an impressive sense of spectacle. It remains to be seen if the FA will respond by having Stone Cold Steve Austin turn up at the Community Shield to deliver a stunner to Stuart Atwell and crack open a couple of cold ones by the corner flag.
The Riyadh Season Cup forms part of the city’s ongoing state-sponsored sport and entertainment festival. It was kicked off by boxer Tyson Fury’s exhibition bout against Francis Ngannou and will ultimately encompass the Spanish, Italian and Turkish Super Cups, as well as Ngannou’s fight against Anthony Joshua.
The structure of the competition was a three-way tournament between Al Hilal, Al Nassr and Inter Miami, culminating in this showdown between the two Riyadh rivals. The match itself finished 2-0 to Al Hilal. The €40million midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic sidefooted home the opener before Saudi skipper Salem Al-Dawsari set the seal on the victory with a delicious chip from outside the box.
قووووووووووووول سالم عالمممممي
— بـيـت | ALHILAL (@AlhilalBayt) February 8, 2024
Despite the absence of the injured Neymar, there were still plenty of familiar names on show. Ronaldo was joined in the Al Nassr line-up by Talisca, Alex Telles and Marcelo Brozovic, while Sadio Mane came off the bench.
Aleksandr Mitrovic, Malcom, Ruben Neves, and Kalidou Koulibaly all started for Al Hilal. Given the showbiz feel of the occasion, it was somewhat disappointing that Al Hilal’s number 37, Bono, was in fact the Moroccan international goalkeeper rather than a cameo from the sunglass-sporting Irish rock star.
The football, however, was little more than a sideshow amid the circus.
Ronaldo, of course, was the star of the show. During the game, he responded to chants of “Messi!” by sarcastically calling for more.
— علي العنزي (@Ali_alabdallh) February 8, 2024
In another exchange, he pointed at the turf, proclaiming that he is in Saudi while Messi is not. All in all, totally normal behaviour which demonstrates how relaxed and secure Ronaldo feels about his enduring rivalry with the World Cup winner.
Ronaldo: “I am here now, not Messi.”
Bro if I’m 40 years old and obsessed with another man like this please end me 😭 pic.twitter.com/Ecm8KyzpEQ
— JAKE BUCKLEY 🇦🇺 (@TheMasterBucks) February 9, 2024
Ronaldo took the defeat with typical good grace. As he led his team up to collect the consolation prize, he lost his temper with an official blocking his route to the podium.
Cristiano Ronaldo was HEATED after losing in the Riyadh Season Cup final. 😳 pic.twitter.com/S531XJKSmc
— DAZN Football (@DAZNFootball) February 8, 2024
A fan threw an Al Hilal shirt at him as he disappeared down the tunnel, and people on social media have claimed that he picked it up and wiped it on his crotch.
— Out Of Context Football (@nocontextfooty) February 8, 2024
It appeared to be a display of petulance that would have been more at home in the pantomime world of WWE, where performers lean into their villainy to turn the crowd against them. Perhaps a wrestling grudge match between Ronaldo and Messi is where Riyadh Season is ultimately headed.
The Saudi Pro League appears here to stay and there have been some progressive developments: this match was officiated by a female referee: the experienced American Tori Penso. But it was notable that the first person to lift the trophy was not a footballer, but Saudi adviser to the Royal Court, Turki Al-Sheikh.
This is still more about an ostentatious exhibition of state power than elite sporting competition — something encapsulated in the fact that the game itself was overshadowed by the appearance of a man who’s almost 60 and pretending to be dead.
(Top photo: Getty Images)
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