Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are set to meet on the pitch for the first time in more than a year in a friendly billed as “the last dance of football greatness” by organisers in Saudi Arabia.
The Ballon d’Or holder’s side, Inter Miami, will meet Ronaldo’s Al Nassr in the Riyadh Season Cup in February 2024.
Al Hilal, who currently lead the Saudi Pro League from Al Nassr and count Neymar, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Ruben Neves and Kalidou Koulibaly among their star players, will also be involved in the three-team showpiece, which will take the form of a league system.
The games will take place at Al Hilal’s 26,000-capacity Kingdom Arena home, which was inaugurated when the Riyadh Season launched with world heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury’s fight against former UFC champion Francis Ngannou on October 28.
Here’s what we know so far about the latest meeting between the two most successful footballers of modern times.
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The Riyadh Season Cup tournament is expected to take place during the first week of February 2024, with the league schedule to be announced later.
It is likely to act as preseason preparation for Inter Miami, as their MLS season in the US is due to start in late February.
Al Hilal and Al Nassr will be in the middle of their campaigns but there are currently no Saudi Pro League matches scheduled in early February as part of a break in the domestic action.
Saudi Arabia’s attempts to establish itself as a major sporting location have been based around blockbuster names.
The hugely influential head of Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority, His Excellency Turki Alalshikh, announced the match in the latest successful deal to bring huge names to the country.
Turki — the owner of Spanish football club Almeria — is an adviser to the Saudi royal court and has been credited with brokering the agreements for fights in Saudi Arabia including Fury against Ngannou, the ‘Day of Reckoning’ event that will be headlined by former world champions Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder on December 23, and Fury’s unification bout with Oleksandr Usyk in February.
Hugely popular Briton Joshua first fought there in 2019, when the nation was relatively little known as a home for boxing, and five-time Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo became the most high-profile star to move to the Saudi Pro League in December 2022 following his Manchester United exit earlier that year.
An influx of players from Europe’s top divisions has been hastened by the involvement of the hugely wealthy Saudi Public Investment Fund, which leads the consortium in charge of Premier League club Newcastle United and took control of Al Ahli, Al Ittihad, Al Hilal and Al Nassr in the Saudi Pro League in June 2023.
Messi, who won his eighth Ballon d’Or in November and has long been considered Ronaldo’s generational arch rival, was linked with a move to Saudi Arabia before joining Inter Miami in July, and his latest appearance there will provide the hosts with an abundance of attention from fans and media.
“The tournament will have a global following due to the prominent international football stars who play for the three clubs,” said the event press release, adding that football in Saudi Arabia has undergone “great development” alongside “great transformations” in the kingdom’s entertainment sector.
First held in 2019, the annual season of cultural events across Riyadh always features star names from the worlds of sport and entertainment.
Fury and Ngannou’s bout, in which the MMA fighter almost shocked his vastly more experienced opponent on his boxing debut, was attended by a large number of celebrities including pop stars Kanye West and Eminem.
The semifinals and final of the Supercopa de Espana will be held at Al Nassr’s Alawwal Park Stadium home in January, and a tennis tournament held on December 26 and 27 will feature leading lights including Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz, Aryna Sabalenka and Ons Jabeur.
This is not unfamiliar territory for the superstar forwards. More than two years after they had last encountered each other on the pitch, when Messi and Ronaldo played in the UEFA Champions League, their teams arranged a friendly in Riyadh on January 21, 2023.
A combined team between Al Hilal and Al Nassr lost 5-4 to Messi’s then-club, Paris Saint-Germain, on that occasion. Messi scored once and Ronaldo twice in the game.
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While some exhibition matches allow key players to take a rest, the press release emphasised that the “stars of all participating clubs” will be involved in the cup.
Fitness permitting, Ronaldo and Messi are certain to feature, but Neymar, who joined Al Hilal in August, will not play because of an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury.
Al Hilal have prospered in the Brazil star’s absence, helped by the prolific form of former Fulham forward Mitrovic, who has been positioned as the billboard figure for the cup alongside Messi and Ronaldo.
Ex-Premier League Golden Boot winner Sadio Mane — a two-time African Footballer of the Year — forms a potent attacking line for Al Nassr alongside Ronaldo and Brazilian attacker Talisca, while Al Hilal’s captain, Salem Al-Dawsari, is the reigning Asian Footballer of the Year.
Two of Messi’s fellow Barcelona legends, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, play for Inter Miami. Midfielder Busquets won the Champions League three times and the 2010 FIFA World Cup and Euro 2012 with Spain, while left-back Alba was one of his team-mates in the latter triumph and for the last of his wins in Europe’s most prestigious club competition in 2015.