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Friday, July 19, 2024

Messi-Ronaldo rivalry takes new shape with MLS and Saudi league

The match was billed as a “last dance” between two icons whose decades-long rivalry dominated global football: Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr against Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami.

On Wednesday we learned Ronaldo’s injury will hold him out of Thursday’s game at Kingdom Arena in Saudi Arabia. But even without both players on the field, the friendly marks a new, very different chapter to the feud. It will be as much about measuring their respective leagues as anything else.

This match is worlds away from the Clasicos and Champions League knockout ties in which fans saw these two legends battle through the 2000s and 2010s. Their greatness has always been measured against each other — Ronaldo’s power against Messi’s craftiness, the brash Portuguese superstar against the introverted Argentine playmaker. Even the cultural differences between Real Madrid and Barcelona factored in.

Each has scored hundreds of goals — in the end they are separated by just one in the top five European leagues, 496 goals for Messi in 578 appearances with Barcelona and PSG, 495 for Ronaldo in 626 appearances with Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus — and won multiple La Ligas, Champions Leagues and Ballon d’Or awards between them. 

The argument about which player is greater took on a life of its own. The debate has primarily been waged in the media and across the internet, but it was occasionally acknowledged by the stars themselves. They certainly have long known how much they are measured against each other. 

“These are two top-level figures who have marked an entire era, I think in the last 15 or 18 years,” Inter Miami coach Tata Martino said.

For some, the argument about which player will rank higher in the pantheon of all-time greats was ended in December 2022 when Messi won the one prize that had always eluded both of them: the World Cup. Just one month later, here in Riyadh, Messi’s PSG met an all-star team from the Saudi Pro League and its newest superstar, Ronaldo, who had only just signed for Al Nassr. Messi scored once and Ronaldo twice as PSG beat the Riyadh Season Cup team, 5-4.

This game feels a bit different from that one, even.

Now, like Ronaldo, Messi is the face of a league outside of the European spotlight. Both Major League Soccer and the Saudi Pro League undoubtedly are counting on the international celebrity of Messi and Ronaldo to lift the popularity of their respective leagues at a time when both crave and claim growing relevance in the global football hierarchy. It’s evidenced in these types of international tours. Messi and Co. are on a 25,000-mile sojourn to start their preseason, a tour that takes them from El Salvador to Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong and Japan. Al Nassr, meanwhile, canceled friendlies in China after Ronaldo was injured.

“Obviously they have marked a great evolution in the two leagues, in MLS and in the Saudi League,” Martino said. “World-renowned figures have joined. It is clear that today, Leo’s presence in the United States and Ronaldo’s presence here have surely brought global attention. In any case, I believe that Europe is still Europe and the big leagues are still the big leagues. And it is clear that there can be an important evolution in both MLS and the Saudi League — I don’t know the Saudi League, I’m sure MLS will continue to have it — but the other thing is the history of football, and against that it is very difficult to narrow the gap.”

The Saudi league has seen a massive bounce since Ronaldo joined in January 2023. A wave of big-money, big-name moves followed in the subsequent summer window. A record $957 million was spent, according to Deloitte, luring the likes of Neymar, Karim Benzema, Malcolm, Otavio, Ruben Neves, Aleksander Mitrovic, Fabinho, Sergej Milinković-Savic, Sadio Mané, Kalidou Koulibaly and others to the Saudi league. In Miami, Messi has been joined by Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and now Luis Suarez. 

The surge of money into the transfer market had some wondering what sort of impact the Saudi League might now have in the global hierarchy. And while Jordan Henderson’s high-profile return from Saudi to Europe and reports of other unhappy players has brought some caution to that narrative, the sheer willingness to spend has pushed the Saudi Pro League to a much higher profile.

Ronaldo undoubtedly is keenly aware that anything he does on the field — whether in his second stint with Manchester United or now with Al Nassr — will be more than a simple notation in his story. Ronaldo and Messi are jockeying for their place among the all-time greats to ever step on the field. There is no hiding, even in the relative footballing outskirts of Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Their successes and failures in Saudi Arabia and MLS will be scrutinized. 

As covered in Messi vs. Ronaldo, a book by Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg, Ronaldo obsessively chronicles his achievements. Not only did he open a museum dedicated to his accomplishments, with every individual award from his illustrious career on display, as well as full-size replicas of the team trophies, but he also kept “a record of his achievements on hand at all times.” Robinson and Clegg wrote that “for Ronaldo, legacy is a material thing, to be touched and photographed and polished.” That’s true even now, as he fights to maintain that the goals he scores in Saudi are just as important as any others. 

It is no surprise, then, that Ronaldo has so forcefully defended the growth of the league where he now plays. Just a few weeks ago, with a swirling blue backdrop behind him on a stage in Dubai, Ronaldo stuck out his lower lip in a pout.

“The level right now?” he asked, repeating the question of host Amanda Davies at the Global Soccer Awards on January 19.

“To be honest I think the Saudi league is not worse than the French league, in my opinion,” Ronaldo said. “The French league you have two, three teams with a good level. In Saudi now, I think it’s more competitive. They can say whatever they want, it’s just my opinion, and I played there one year so I know what I’m talking about, but I think right now we are better than the French league, so we still improve.”

Ronaldo’s audacious claim made headlines around the footballing world, the latest demonstration of his willingness to be an ambassador for the Saudi Pro League since signing with Al Nassr in December 2022. Similarly, in the days after Messi signed with Inter Miami, Ronaldo declared that the Saudi League was better than MLS. (Last January, Twenty First Group’s league ratings showed that not to be true.)

In many ways, the claims felt as much about protecting his own legacy as anything else. Later that night in Dubai, Ronaldo would discuss his goal-scoring record in 2023 — his 54 goals was the most in the world — noting that he stayed in front of “young lions” like Erling Haaland. 

The quality of the SPL, of course, would be paramount in any discussion of the world’s best scorers.

As in many other ways, Ronaldo and Messi are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to vouching for their current leagues.

Messi’s legacy undoubtedly feels more secure now after that thrilling World Cup final in Doha and the moment he lifted that last gold trophy over his head. That win granted him a freedom to be able to enjoy the final years of his career without as much pressure as to ‘what it all means’ in terms of his place in the pantheon of greats.

In his first press conference with Inter Miami in August, Messi was reluctant to accept the responsibility as any sort of agent for change for the sport of soccer in the U.S. 

“Honestly I don’t think (about growing the game, in that way),” Messi said. “I came here to play, to continue enjoying football, which is what I’ve loved my entire life.”

Whereas Ronaldo made headlines for his throaty endorsements of his new league, a December interview Messi gave to Star+ in Argentina made a splash when Messi said he knew he made a move to a “lesser league” when he left Europe for the U.S.

It was an obvious answer; not even the most forceful defenders of MLS claim it has caught the top European leagues. Yet, because Messi said it, it was turned into a headline. In a nutshell, that is the impact of Messi’s presence in MLS, or Ronaldo’s in Saudi Arabia. They bring a completely different level of scrutiny to their respective leagues.

Messi, though, seems to understand that his presence alone is enough to drive the league forward. 

Sold-out stadiums around MLS, increased subscription sales for MLS Season Pass on Apple TV and record jersey sales were indicative of Messi’s impact on MLS. The commercial success around Messi in the first few months in MLS has sparked conversations behind the scenes in MLS executive and ownership circles about how to best drive the league forward, not just because Messi is here, but also with the 2026 World Cup, co-hosted by the U.S., Mexico and Canada, just around the corner.

The salary-capped league likely won’t see the sort of massive movement of names we’ve seen in Saudi Arabia, but there is a chance for the league to take important steps forward.

“I like MLS a lot and I think it always works to improve, but there is a part of freeing up the rules a little to be able to go out and compete in the world,” Martino said. “If not, it becomes a bit complex when you have aspirations of being competitive in the CONCACAF Champions Cup and eventually in a Club World Cup.”

Messi’s arrival has accelerated conversations about what those changes could look like. His presence in Miami has brought new eyeballs to MLS, and opportunities like this international tour only reinforce that. MLS stakeholders now must determine how to keep Messi fans once he’s no longer playing.

While Thursday’s friendly won’t necessarily be a referendum on the standing of these two leagues today, it will undoubtedly drive comparisons between the respective levels of the two leagues. 

More importantly, it’s a stage for each league to continue to tell its story — a stage set by Messi and Ronaldo.

(Photo: Valerio Pennicino – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

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