A crackerjack 5-4 closes the door on the Messi vs Ronaldo rivalry, for now

Two of the greatest to grace the world of football met on unfamiliar soil for the first time since December 2020

Sajid Khan
Published : 20 Jan 2023, 01:30 PM
Updated : 20 Jan 2023, 01:30 PM

It was billed as both a friendly, and one last chance to see two of the greatest in the game go head-to-head. As a star-studded Paris Saint-Germain took on a Saudi All-Star XI on Thursday at the King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, it turned into a nine-goal thriller that brought an exuberant close to the brilliant rivalry between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Both Ronaldo and Messi were in unfamiliar colours for the clash – Messi swapping the Catalan colours for PSG blue and Ronaldo donning the jersey for Saudi All-Star XI, a combined super team of players from the two major Riyadh-based clubs, Al-Nassr FC and Al Hilal SFC. But the effort on the field seemed to, for one shining hour, turn back the clock.   

Fresh off the World Cup, PSG had their pick of top talent with Messi backed up by runner-up Kylian Mbappé, semi-finalist Achraf Hakimi and quarter-finalist Neymar all in the starting lineup. Ronaldo, meanwhile, was making his first professional appearance on Saudi Arabian soil and captaining his side to boot. Their mere presence on the field and on screens before kickoff led to massive eruptions of exuberance from the crowd.

There was no shortage of drama throughout the first half. Messi drew first blood early, bouncing onto a through ball from Neymar and then guiding the ball through a tiny gap between defender and goalkeeper. For a bit, the Saudi Arabian Pro League players seemed starstruck, losing their men and positions in transition to offer up chances to their opponents. PSG, however, failed to capitalise. At one point, Mbappe romped forward onto a Messi pass and found the back of the net, only to be judged offside.

Then came the equalizer. A free kick saw Ronaldo and PSG goalkeeper Navas go for the ball, only for Navas’s forearm to catch the Portuguese on the side of the head. The ref pointed to the spot and Ronaldo pounced, blasting it into the net.

The Saudi team had now found their stride. A PSG corner suddenly launched into a counter-attack with Salem Al Dawsari roaring upfield. Bernat, losing his head, scythed him down and was shown a red card. With PSG down to 10 men, the match felt more even.

Now, mouths bloodied, Parisians grew determined. First Marquinhos trundled a cross from Mbappe into the goal, then Neymar was brought down in the box for a penalty. But his stutter-step run-up led to a weak shot mopped up by the keeper. Then, just before the first half ended, Ronaldo struck again, heading a cross into the post before firing the rebound in. All square again.

The second half started of at blistering pace, with both keepers called into action early on. Saudi keeper Mohammed Al-Owais deserves special mention. He might have let in a handful of goals, but he stood tall to PSG’s all-star attack throughout the game and pulled off some excellent saves.

The one to break the tie was Ronaldo’s old teammate, Sergio Ramos, who got on the end of an Mbappe ball and guided it in. But the Saudi team would not give up and some sloppy defending from a corner saw Hyun-soo score to tie it up for the third time. A handball only minutes later put Mbappe on the spot and he continued his fine line of spot strikes to take the score to 4-3.

Both Ronaldo and Messi were subbed off at the 62nd minute to applause, but the action barely let up. The two sides traded blows, each getting past the others’ defence, only to come up short. Young Hugo Ekitike, on loan from Reims, delivered the winning blow for PSG, racing out and scoring from a counter-attack.

The tempo dipped a bit after that, but the Saudis kept up their dogged fight and just before the whistle blew, Talisca fired in an absolute wonder strike from outside the box. The Parisians clung on to win, but their ‘farmer’s league’ opponents sure put on a show. Brazilian Luiz Gustavo and Malian Moussa Marega were especially good, keeping possession throughout the field against top competition.

This may be the last time we see Ronaldo and Messi – two of the greatest of all time – facing off on a football pitch. With Ronaldo’s hefty contract at Al Nassr and Messi’s extension at PSG, it seems unlikely the two will see a whole lot of each other in the years to come. The back-and-for energy of the game lived up to the El Clasico clashes that seemed to bring the world to a halt and excited millions around the world. Despite their age and the length of their stellar careers, they still dominate on the field, and fans all over the world still wish to see them play.

Messi has seen incredible form and glorious trophies in the past few months, while Ronaldo was benched by Man Utd and Portugal amid questions and criticism about his abilities. But as the match showed, both still have a lot left in the tank. They will be remembered for ages to come and fans will eagerly await any future encounter.

This article is a part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication with a focus on culture and society from a youth perspective. 

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher