Riyadh: A showdown between two of the world’s greatest footballers provided an entertaining spectacle in Riyadh but Saudi Arabia will not stop there in its drive to burnish its image through sport.
Deafening fireworks closed Thursday’s exhibition between Lionel Messi’s Paris Saint-Germain and a composite team led by Saudi Pro League new arrival Cristiano Ronaldo, won 5-4 by the visitors.
The friendly had all the trimmings of a major fixture, complete with VAR, flame-throwers, tickertape and a medal presentation in front of more than 60,000 fans at the venerable King Fahd Stadium.
But the kingdom is already promising more with a World Cup and Summer Olympics, perhaps even a Winter Olympics, already in its sights, together with a swathe of other major events.
“This is a big match but … this is nothing [compared to] what will happen with Vision 2030,” said Turki Al Sheikh, head of the General Entertainment Authority, referring to Saudi Arabia’s ambitious development plan.
Saudi Arabia is attempting to open up its society to the world. The world’s biggest oil exporter has thrown hundreds of millions at sports deals including Ronaldo’s capture, F1 in Jeddah and the lucrative LIV Golf tour.
In coming years the Saudis, who watched their neighbours Qatar host the World Cup in November and December, will hold the men’s and women’s Asian Cup, the Olympic-sized Asian Games and even the Asian Winter Games on artificial snow.
It is all part of grand plans by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, to modernise the Saudi economy. “My leader will surprise Saudis with much more things,” Al Sheikh told AFP. “We are ready to fulfil his demands at any time. But what’s coming is much greater.”
‘Just the beginning’
Saudi Arabia is discussing a joint bid for the 2030 World Cup with Egypt and Greece, while last year its sports minister told AFP that hosting the Olympics was the “ultimate goal”.
Its biggest coup so far was Ronaldo’s signing by Al Nassr for more than €200 million, plus a separate €200 million deal to promote the World Cup bid, according to a source close to the club.
The shock transfer of the 37-year-old Portuguese has triggered speculation that Messi, who plays for Qatar-owned PSG, but is a paid Saudi tourism ambassador, could join him in the Pro League.
“Ronaldo’s transfer is just the beginning,” said Danyel Reiche, a visiting associate professor at Georgetown University Qatar.
More superstars moving to Saudi Arabia
“Regardless of whether Messi will go to Saudi, we will see more superstars moving to Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi Pro League chairman Abdul Aziz Al Afaleq said: “The Saudi Pro League was delighted to provide players for the Riyadh Season Cup match. Players from our league relished the opportunity to pit their talents against some of the best players in the world, such as Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, Achraf Hakimi, and, of course, Lionel Messi. Backed by an incredibly passionate crowd at the King Fahd International Stadium, the Saudi Pro League players truly put in a performance to be proud of that showcased the strength of Saudi Arabian football.”
Alafaleq added: “The sell-out attendance on Thursday night and Cristiano Ronaldo’s much-awaited league debut on Sunday is indicative of the huge passion Saudi fans have for football. We have no doubt the eyes of the football world will be firmly on the Saudi Pro League and Mrsool Park on Sunday night.”