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All eyes on Riyadh for Cristiano-Messi ‘Last Dance’

After staging both the Italian and Spanish Super Cup finals this week, the King Fahd Stadium will be packed on Thursday as a Riyadh Season XI face PSG.

A picture shows the jersey of Al-Nassr's new Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo

Saudi capital Riyadh will take centre stage once again after hosting Sunday’s Spanish Super Cup final between Real Madrid and Barcelona and Wednesday night’s Supercoppa Italiana. On Thursday, a sold-out King Fahd Stadium will be the setting a friendly game between Paris Saint-Germain and a Riyadh Season XI (which will be composed of players from locals sides Al Hilal and Al Nassr) with the game also probably set to be the last time two legends of the game in Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo take to the same pitch together after their previous 36 head-to-head meetings.

Saudi controversy

The Spanish Super Cup was held for the third time in Saudi Arabia, with the decision to take the traditional season opener to the Gulf state in 2019 with a rebrand and final-four format. The deal between the Saudi Arabian Football Federation and the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) is reportedly worth $40 million per season with the current agreement running through to 2029.

Cynics could claim that this is simply a question of money talking and fits in perfectly with the ongoing campaign by the Saudi kingdom and another chapter in ‘sports washing’ after the national investment fund (PIF) recently bought Premier League side Newcastle United. And, well, few would disagree. Criticism to these initiatives came from many, including Amnesty International who were scathing of the federation’s “collaboration in this ‘whitewashing’ of the image of the Saudi Arabia”, where it said there had been very little improvement in the “the systematic abuse of the LGBTQ community and continued discrimination against women.”

Italy follows suit

After staging the 2018 Supercoppa Italiana in Jeddah and Riyadh hosting the game in 2109, the 2022 edition returned to the Saudi capital on Wednesday night in a Milanese derby that saw Inter crush city rivals 3-0.

Reports at the end of 2022 suggest that Saudi Arabia will bid for the right to host the competition in the future after a reported $138 million offer to secure rights as part of a seven year deal with the Italian version set to follow the Spanish Super Cup format with an expanded four-team event.

Saudi sports marketing firm Sela Sport has reportedly tendered a proposal to Lega Serie A, the governing body for the top flight of Italian club soccer.

Internazionale celebrate after winning the EA Sports Supercup match between AC Milan and FC Internazionale at King Fahd International Stadium
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Internazionale celebrate after winning the EA Sports Supercup match between AC Milan and FC Internazionale at King Fahd International Stadium Mattia Ozbot - InterGetty

Cristiano arrives

“History in the making,” Al Nassr tweeted on 30 December 2022....

“This is a signing that will not only inspire our club to achieve even greater success but inspire our league, our nation and future generations, boys and girls to be the best version of themselves. Welcome @Cristiano to your new home @AlNassrFC.

The Portuguese striker’s deal with the Saudi Pro League side Al Nassr will run for two-and-a-half years through to June 2025 with the player set to earn total salary of €214m per year once commercial agreements are also included. The deal is thought to be the highest salary ever paid to a professional footballer.

Al-Nassr confirma el debut oficial de Cristiano
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Al Nassr unveil new signing Cristiano RonaldoAHMED YOSRIREUTERS

Once again, the financial clout of this particular Saudi Arabian side has propelled the domestic league onto the global stage as it was confirmed earlier this week that sports marketing giant IMG will sell Saudi Pro League rights globally with an Al Nassr game guaranteed to be shown as part of a two game package with commentary in English, Portuguese and Arabic.

PSG come to town

The final high profile game at the King Fahd Stadium this week will see Cristiano Ronaldo captain a Riyadh Season XI (featuring a combination of stars from Al Nassr and Al Hilal) as they face PSG with the French team jetting in from a winer training camp in Qatar.

Leo Messi walks at King Fahd International
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Leo Messi walks at King Fahd International Aurelien Meunier - PSGGetty

According to reports from ESPN, sources close to the organization of the exhibition match claimed that more than 2 million applications were received from fans keen to buy tickets for the match with the 68,000 capacity King Fahd Stadium selling out in a matter of minutes.

L’Équipe reported that Paris Saint-Germain will make €10 million from the match.