With a king’s ransom in his pocket and a pawn’s responsibilities in his feet, the old boy finally got to work on Thursday night.
He was here in this most unusual of places and so was the other guy, two men locked in a dance that has gone on for 14 years. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – the order always mattered and what a treat that tango has been.
They have contested El Clasico, fought it out in the Champions League, squared off in the colors of their country, and together they have reached such magnificent heights.
It is sad that this is how a great rivalry ends between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo
This might be the last time we see these two face off after PSG’s 5-4 win over Saudi All Stars
There is a curiosity in how it came to this for one of the greatest footballers the world has ever seen – with Ronaldo now set to become a billboard for Saudi Arabia
Could one have done it without the other? Possibly. Would it have been so special? No chance. Ali needed Frazier and Foreman. Nicklaus needed Palmer. Navratilova needed Evert. The Red Sox need the Yankees. Ronaldo needed Messi, Messi needed Ronaldo.
But maybe it’s over now. Maybe this 37th jig of aging rivals was the last we’ll see of them on the same pitch.
And there is a sadness in that, just as there is a curiosity in how it has come to this for one of the greatest footballers the world has seen. A curiosity of modern sport and a curiosity of international politics and a curiosity of the ego that led Ronaldo away from one life as a serious athlete and into another as a billboard or washcloth, depending on how you view these discussions.
So perhaps this is how the rivalry ends, on a pitch in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where a team of greats, led by Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, contested an exhibition against the hybrid ‘All Stars’ of Al-Hilal and Al Nassr , the latter of whom will serve as Ronaldo’s new colleagues.
The pair reached magnificent heights together and none could have done it without the other
After contesting El Clasico, fighting it out in the Champions League and on the national stage, this then felt somewhat anti-climactic
When it was done, Messi’s bunch had won 5-4. A good game, actually. Messi scored the first, Ronaldo responded with two of his own from him, and maybe he quite enjoyed that, just as the locals enjoyed seeing it. Really, they love football in this country.
But it was impossible to shake the thought that while Messi passes through on his tour as a World Cup winner, Ronaldo will stay right here. Fabulously wealthy to the beat of £173million a year, but a man for whom the pursuit of excellence is seemingly no longer what it was.
For now, his purpose seems to be facing other directions. He says it is about conquering Asia just as he conquered Europe, but he is also more than smart enough to know the game for which he is being deployed off the pitch.
The game of inspiring the youth of a football-mad nation, to go by the spoken accounts of those who brought him here, and the wider game of cleaning the reputation of a country with an image problem, to go by those whose business it is to monitor human rights.
It was an entertaining game as Ronaldo and Messi both got on the scoresheet in Riyadh
That will be a significant part of Ronaldo’s narrative moving on, just as it has been for Messi in his alliance with Qatar and his role as a tourism ambassador for Saudi Arabia, who no doubt would move heaven, earth and a gazillion barrels of oil to get him here on a more permanent arrangement.
That they reunited here, at the King Fahd Stadium, was cause enough for Amnesty International to voice dire concerns, with one of their directors, Peter Frankental saying: ‘This match is a reminder that Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing efforts are operating at full throttle.’
He would go on to detail 81 executions in a single day last March, and draconian sentences handed to those protesting for women’s rights. That will be Ronaldo’s backdrop now, just as it has been for those in Formula One, boxing, LIV golf and other areas of the most rapidly expanding empire sport has known.
Whether that is a consideration for most sports fans is open to debate. For many it is a grave concern; for many others, the headers, volleys, chips and putts are enough of the content they need.
But while their reunion has delighted the country, their appearance was a reminder that sports washing is at full throttle
Messi leaves Saudi Arabia as a World Cup winner after his heroics with Argentina last year
Which takes us back to the grand unveiling. By the time Ronaldo took to the pitch for the warm-up, 10 yards ahead of his nearest team-mate, naturally, he was already richer by £10m for his time in Saudi Arabia, and quite possibly deafened too by the reception.
They can fit 67,000 in this stadium and claimed it was sold out in minutes of tickets going on sale, even if that did appear to fail the eye test, going by the number of visible blue seats.
Equally conspicuous was the swathes of red reserved for the great and good. We can safely assume one was filled by Mushref al-Ghamdi, the real estate mogul who paid the thick end of £2.2m at auction for his place in the moment, though there was no confirmation of any royal presence, in the grander sense of the word.
Perhaps that in itself is part of the wider story. Perhaps this was just another day in the scheme of using sport to beam a certain picture. The biggest day to date, sure, but just one more, nonetheless, and by any sound reasoning, the most significant and most powerful figures in Saudi Arabia are not those who kick footballs.
But Ronaldo will stay here in Saudi Arabia, where he will attempt to clean up the reputation of a country with an image problem
For a time, it appeared Messi would hijack the show – scoring after three minutes was a superb act of trolling. But Ronaldo leveled with a penalty after being smacked in the face while contesting a cross with Keylor Navas, his old pal from those long gone days at Real Madrid.
PSG were soon 2-1 ahead, albeit with 10 men, and after Neymar missed a penalty, Ronaldo got his second and the place went berserk. He attempted his siuuu celebration but a team-mate grounded his jump – he will no doubt learn the protocol.
After some meandering, the details of which were always going to be incidental, the score reached 5-3 and then both Messi and Ronaldo were substituted after an hour. The place fell silent in bemusement, and more so when there was no embrace of long-time rivals. Not even a glance.
Maybe that was an anti-climax. Maybe like a few other things, it was a bit sad too.