The rumor won’t go away. In fact it’s getting stronger by the day.
A few months ago, the notion of Lionel Messi signing for Al-Hilal would have been fanciful to say the least. But Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Al-Nassr, and above all, his embrace of his new home, has altered things dramatically.
So much so, the word is that, for Messi, a deal with Al-Hilal is a preferred option to returning to former club Barcelona, a new adventure in the US or a homecoming in Argentina.
An enticing precedent has now been set.
Let’s face it, few people believed that Ronaldo would make the move to Saudi Arabia when rumors began swirling during the World Cup, particularly as no specific club was initially mentioned.
Surely a move from Manchester United to a Champions League club in Europe would be his preferred choice?
But on Dec. 30, 2022, the rumors became a reality. Ronaldo was presented as an Al-Nassr footballer to millions of fans, many of them disbelieving, around the world.
While many have cast doubts about the reasons behind his move, and his future intentions, the Portuguese legend has gone about his business in exactly the professional manner you’d expect, on and off the pitch.
“I did everything in Europe, and it’s time to share my experience in Asia,” he said.
Ronaldo, like Messi, has had a successful international break, scoring doubles in the 4-0 win over Liechtenstein and the 6-0 defeat of Luxembourg. He returns to Riyadh in buoyant mood, having reminded the world that his golden touch remains intact since his move to Saudi.
Looking at his Al-Nassr spell so far, accusations that his prime motivation was money seem off the mark.
He has fitted seamlessly into the Al-Nassr setup, and so far has scored eight league goals — including four against Al-Wehda and a hattrick against Damac — to close in on top scorer Talisca’s tally of 13. He has also been named Roshn Saudi League player of the month for February.
Off the pitch, he has embraced his new surroundings.
Many believed he would be spending his time travelling between Saudi and Europe, but his family seems to have settled in Riyadh in double quick time, and they have been seen visiting many famous spots and historical landmarks such as AlUla, while his children have been taking Arabic lessons.
He further endeared himself to the local population by celebrating Saudi Arabia’s Founding Day in traditional attire.
Since his move, the world’s press has been focused on his every move, while football fans are increasingly targeting Riyadh as a tourist destination thanks to his presence.
No doubt the support for the Ronaldo deal by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the government, as confirmed by Saudi Minister of Sports Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki, has had a significant impact on how the Kingdom will be seen as a home for the world’s best players, with the promise that all clubs will receive similar backing.
This has led to speculation that players like Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric could be next to make the move to Saudi.
But it’s Messi’s name that has caused the most excitement, not least for the potential renewal of his rivalry with Ronaldo.
The idea, unthinkable a few years ago, is very much a possibility now, with good reason.
Over the last decade, Saudi Arabia has established itself as a hub of Middle Eastern and Asian football, with Al-Hilal claiming two Champions League titles and the national team excelling at different age-group levels.
Where the Chinese, Japanese and South Korean leagues had been seen as superior in the past, the Saudi Pro League is now arguably the most competitive.
Messi’s camp will be aware of all these developments.
The Argentine captain’s father was recently in Riyadh and will have been tempted with offers that could dwarf even Ronaldo’s deal.
And should Messi make the move to Al-Hilal, Saudi football fans and media will be the big winners. From watching two of the world’s greatest ever footballers duel it out in Spain’s El Clasico, the rivalry will be there for all to witness in the heart of Riyadh.