‘Appreciate the Goatness’: Messi and PSG edge Ronaldo’s all-stars in desert | Soccer

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This was the Fabergé egg of football friends. A simple, unremarkable thing transformed by ambition, dedication, an absence of taste and money, lots of money, into something transcendental. The full time score in Riyadh: entertainment 7 – geopolitics 6.

The top line was Ronaldo v Messi. Billed as potentially the last encounter between the two footballing giants, it was a chance to “appreciate their Goatness” as a host on PSG TV put it. The Argentina captain was at the heart of the French champions’ gilded forward line, alongside Neymar and Kylian Mbappé. The Portuguese, meanwhile, captained an amalgamated team from the Saudi league, from players taken from the champions, Al-Hilal, and his new club, Al-Nassr, billed as the Riyadh Season Team.

This match was arranged two years ago and scheduled for 2022, but it was deferred because of Covid and things have changed since. That there was ultimately more to it than the appearance of two superannuated superstars will not come as a surprise to anyone who has been awake in the intervening period.

Ronaldo’s arrival in the country this winter, on a contract worth $214m over its two-and-a-half-year duration, is a statement about the importance of sport to Saudi Arabia. It is also an attempt to swing the limelight back to Riyadh after the regional acclamation that followed Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup. Qatar, of course, own PSG and is currently upset with the Saudis who have been blocking its digital TV service in the country. That service includes the sports brand BeIn, which had the rights to screen this match in 43 countries. It’s complicated.

So when the president of PSG, Nasser al-Khelaifi, walked out on to the pitch of the King Fahd Stadium arm-in-arm with Turki al-Sheikh, the owner of La Liga side Almería, poet, and the head of Saudi’s General Entertainment Authority, there was a certain amount of symbolism involved. There was a third man in the walk-out, too, the Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan, although the political significance of his presence was not immediately ascertainable.

Bachchan greeted the players before kick-off and his role as leading dignitary was unlikely to have been performed for free. The same could be said of the recruitment of Marcelo Gallardo – perhaps the world’s most celebrated out-of-work football manager – to coach the Riyadh Season Team for all of 90 minutes. The Riyadh Season, in case you were wondering, is a new Saudi initiative designed to bring tourists to the capital during the more tolerable winter months (if you consider 11 degrees tolerable) to enjoy 15 different “entertainment zones”.

Cristiano Ronaldo shoots at goal.
Cristiano Ronaldo shoots at goal. Photograph: Power Sport Images/Shutterstock

The Riyadh Season is Sheikh’s idea and it has been immaculately programmed, from music to theater to cheeseburgers. A similar attention to detail was visible at this match. The talent was there, the in-stadium audio visuals too. The VIP access was unprecedented with one individual paying $2m for the chance to get into the dressing rooms at half-time and meet the Goats. Funnily enough, the football also delivered.

Goat #1 opened the scoring in the third minute, Messi latching on to a dinked Neymar pass to slot home under David Ospina, the Colombia international and former Arsenal stand-in. Twenty-five minutes in and Mbappé had apparently scored another only for VAR to rule it out. Yes this was a friendly with VAR, what did you expect?

In the 34th minute the video assistant was at work again, this time awarding Riyadh Season a penalty for no earthly reason after Ronaldo and Keylor Navas had both contested for a ball and missed it. Goat #2 stepped up, scored easily and did a “siiiuuuu” which duly reverberated through the 66,000 punters in the crowd. Then PSG’s Juan Bernat was sent off, Marquinhos scored with a backheeled flick, Neymar missed a penalty and Ronaldo fired home his second after an imperious header had come back off the post. And this was all before half-time.

The scores were level at 2-2 and it soon became 3-3 when Sergio Ramos turned home the ball after a piece of Mbappé blood-twisting, then the Korean centre-half Jang Hyun-soo headed home for Riyadh from a corner. Mbappé restored the PSG lead in the 59th minute before he, Messi, Neymar and Ronaldo were all withdrawn on the hour in a move that was not in any way contractually pre-agreed.

Paris Saint-Germain players celebrate with the trophy after the match.
Paris Saint-Germain players celebrate with the trophy after the match. Photograph: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

The 10 men of Paris scored a fifth through the substitute Hugo Ekitiké before, in the 90th minute, Ronaldo came up on the big screen and blew a kiss to the crowd and the Riyadh sub Anderson Talisca scored a belter from the edge of the box. A win for the non-scratch side with a front line worth nigh on half abillion euros, but a close contest all the same. Everyone could go away happy.

After the medal ceremony, yes this friendly had a medal ceremony that was not entirely unlike that of the World Cup final, the Black Eyed Peas played on over the tannoy and the Goats toured the sidelines clapping the crowd, who were decent. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world, the 1.3 million concurrent viewers who had been watching the match on a YouTube livestream clicked off and asked their mothers what was for dinner.

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