RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — If this is to be the last time Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi meet on the same pitch, at least they put on a show.
Thursday night was G.O.A.T.S. in the Gulf, an exhibition match between a Riyadh Season Team featuring Ronaldo, newly signed up to the Saudi Pro League, and Messi’s Paris Saint-Germain. Even though it wasn’t quite Real Madrid against Barcelona or Portugal vs. Argentina, the two old rivals did what they’ve done so many times before. They scored goals. In the end, Messi got one and Ronaldo two in a game that ended 5-4 to PSG, with both players substituted off after an hour.
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For Messi, it was a continuation of the form he showed in leading Argentina to success at the World Cup just a month ago. For Ronaldo, whose last game ended in tears as Portugal were knocked out by Morocco in the quarterfinals, it was a reminder that despite a messy split from Manchester United and a difficult time in Qatar, he still knows how to score goals. He should get plenty in Saudi Arabia judging by some of the defending on show and Al Nassr, his new club, will be expecting it after shelling out $200 million a year for his services.
Ronaldo, named man of the match to nobody’s surprise, was the star of the show and sitting on the bench for the final 30 minutes, he blew kisses to the crowd when he was shown on the stadium’s big screens. Laughing and joking with Sergio Ramos before the game and wearing a broad smile as he walked out ahead of kick-off underneath a wave of silver confetti, he didn’t look like a man unhappy with the recent twist in his career.
Exactly a year earlier, Ronaldo was starting for United in a 3-1 win at Brentford and just a couple of weeks away from scoring Premier League hat-tricks against Tottenham and Norwich. Having waved goodbye to European football, he will have to settle for a couple of goals against Ettifaq FC on Sunday when he finally makes his debut for Al Nassr. If nothing else, Ronaldo will be adored in Saudi Arabia and the supporters wearing a collection of shirts from Al Nassr, United, Juventus and Portugal — all bearing his name and No.7 — cheered every touch as if each one was flying into the net.
Messi’s first touch did go in — brilliantly set up by Neymar — after three minutes, but Ronaldo didn’t take long to even it up. Jumping to head a free-kick floated into the penalty area, he was clattered by former Real Madrid teammate Keylor Navas and Qatari referee Abdulrahman al Jassim pointed to the spot.
Despite needing treatment for a cut lip, Ronaldo dispatched the ball emphatically from 12 yards as he has done so many times before before running to the corner for his “Siu!” celebration, which was replicated in unison by most of the crowd at the King Fahd International Stadium. Ronaldo one, Messi one. With honours even, it would have been a fitting way to end the half, but for the final five minutes everyone seemed to forget it was meant to be an exhibition game.
First, PSG defender Juan Bernat was sent off for wiping out Mohammed Kanno on the halfway line. Then Marquinhos scored a tap-in to make it 2-1, before PSG had the chance to make it 3-1 when Neymar was awarded a penalty following a VAR review. However, the Brazilian hit a penalty so weak that Mohammed Al Owais could have run around the goal twice and still saved it. Maybe Messi is bored of taking penalties after scoring six, including shoot-outs, at the World Cup.
What’s certain is that Ronaldo, approaching his 38th birthday and firmly in the final stage of his career, isn’t bored of scoring goals and with seconds left at the end of the first half, he got above Ramos to head against the post and then turn in the rebound. Cue more “Siu!” from him and the crowd.
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By the time Ronaldo and Messi — last on the same pitch when Barcelona met Juventus in the Champions League in 2020 — were substituted after 60 minutes, the score was 4-3. And despite the cameras and the fans appearing determined to focus more on the benches than the actual game towards full-time, both PSG and the Riyadh team — which was made up of players from Al Nassr and Al Hilal — scored again.
A game full of goals finished 5-4, which felt fitting given the two players everyone came to see have got more than 1,600 between them. Wherever there’s Ronaldo or Messi, there always seem to be goals and they delivered as intended in the desert.