Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo put on a show as they came head to head in Paris Saint-Germain’s 5-4 win over a Riyadh All-Star XI on Thursday.
The exhibition match was played in Saudi Arabia’s capital and saw the two superstars renew their storied rivalry for possibly the last time.
Despite being a friendly, the game was played at a furious pace as a packed out crowd inside the King Fahd Stadium was treated to a goal-fest between the French champion and a team consisting of the best players from Saudi’s domestic league.
It was Messi who opened the scoring with a well taken finish within three minutes before Ronaldo equalized from the penalty spot after colliding with PSG goalkeeper Keylor Navas.
Juan Bernat was then sent off for the French giant after bringing down Salem Al Dawsari as the last man, before defender Marquinhos reestablished PSG’s lead by turning in a wonderful cross from Kylian Mbappé.
The breathtaking action continued with Neymar seeing his penalty saved before Ronaldo leveled the scores 2-2 before the break when he reacted quickest after his initial header hit the post.
The Portugal international has yet to make his debut since moving to Al Nassr after the World Cup, but he delighted the crowds on Thursday by performing his trademark celebration.
The 37-year-old is set to make his debut on Sunday as Al Nassr hosts Ettifaq at Mrsool Park.
There was no let up in the second half with Sergio Ramos putting PSG back ahead after more brilliant work from Mbappé, before Jang Hyun-soo’s header leveled proceedings again.
Mbappé then got on the score sheet himself after converting another penalty before both Ronaldo and Messi were substituted after the hour mark.
Even without the two big names on the pitch, the game continued at a frantic pace and youngster Hugo Ekitike eventually put PSG out of sight after calmly finishing off a counterattack.
There was still time, though, for Anderson Talisca to convert a long-range effort which ended up serving as little more than a consolation.
The exhibition game was more than organizers could have dreamed of with all the biggest stars playing a part in a thrilling encounter.
“Players from our league relished the opportunity to pit their talents against some of the best players in the world, such as Kylian Mbappé, Neymar, Achraf Hakimi, and, of course, Lionel Messi,” Saudi Pro League chairman AdbulAziz Al-Afaleq said in a statement.
“Backed by an incredibly passionate crowd at the King Fahd International Stadium, the Saudi Pro League players truly put in a performance to be proud of that showcased the strength of Saudi Arabian football.”
However, the match has been criticized by Amnesty International, which says the game was another example of sportswashing – a phenomenon whereby corrupt or autocratic regimes invest in sport and sports events to whitewash their international reputation – from both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which bankrolls PSG through the company Qatar Sports Investments.
“Ronaldo’s big-money transfer to Al Nassr and Messi’s engagement by the Saudi authorities as a tourism ambassador are both part of Riyadh’s aggressive sportswashing programme, with the authorities seeking to exploit the celebrity appeal of elite sport to deflect attention from the country’s appalling human rights record,” Peter Frankental, Amnesty UK’s economic affairs director, said in a statement.
He added: “Saudi Arabia’s extensive use of sport as an exercise in soft power is well-known, but with Qatari-owned PSG appearing in Riyadh we effectively have two sportswashing superpowers – Saudi Arabia and Qatar – flexing their muscles.
“Saudi Arabia and Qatar have both poured vast amounts of money into sporting ventures in a bid to rebrand themselves and switch international attention away from their human rights records – efforts which have been only partially successful.
“Footballers like Ronaldo and Messi have huge profiles and we’d like to see them resisting being used as the famous faces of sportswashing, including by speaking out about human rights issues in both Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”