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Saudi Arabian friendly opens new chapter in Messi and Ronaldo’s great rivalry


Messi and Ronaldo

They defined an era and changed the game forever.

And while Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s final bout won’t be as high stakes or glamorous as once hoped, it allows fans everywhere to reflect on what we had and what we will miss.

For the best part of two decades, Messi and Ronaldo have been the faces of football; era-defining golden boys of football, locked in a war to be the greatest. 

When Messi’s Inter Miami travels to Saudi Arabia for a pre-season showdown with Ronaldo’s Al Nassr, it will likely mark the 38th, final, and lowest-stakes battle of their ceiling-exploding, earth-shattering careers.

Messi and Ronaldo’s rivalry drawing to a close

Al Nassr vs. Inter Miami | Kingdom Arena, Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), February 1

For a pair whose first head-to-head meeting occurred in the 2008 Champions League semi-finals won by Ronaldo’s Manchester United and clashed for the third time in the following year’s Champions League final, this is not how it was expected to end.

The fact that seven of their head-to-head clashes have been contested in finals – three to Messi, three to Ronaldo, and one draw – and that 20% of all Ballon D’ors ever awarded ended in their hands says it all. 

And so, the fact these borderline-extraterrestrial titans of modern football who will go down as its finest ever draw the curtain on their rivalry in a pre-season friendly during their career twilights is a surprise. 

Both existed within bubbles of greatness so unrivalled and unprecedented, like Gods coming down to Earth for a kickabout and so were expected to end their careers at Europe’s peak, hunting titles and records.

But, as it happens, age and circumstances meant their career fairytale endings escaped millions of adoring fans. There will not be one last Champions League contest or visceral El Clasico. 

Instead, both are enjoying swansongs in some ways reflective of their personalities. Ronaldo in the disruptive Saudi League having departed European football with a fractious bang and Messi in Miami, where he retreated to be closer to family after frantic final years in Europe.

It’s not only their career’s final chapters running parallel to each other. For so long each was the other’s antithesis. Where Messi was a diminutive dancer naturally tarred with a God-like footballing ability Ronaldo was a steam train of brute strength and unrivalled work ethic. 

But in many ways, their head-to-head record tells just part of the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry. 

Together, they’ve been defined as much by their actions and achievements as by how these stack up against the others, competing more often when they didn’t share a pitch than when they did; for Ballon D’ors, league titles, and goal-scoring honours.

Highest paid soccer players, Messi and Ronaldo
Lionel Messi finished his European career at Paris Saint-Germain

Central to this has been the clear division between the two camps of fans; either you’re a devout Messi disciple or a patron of the Church of Ronaldo.

This left their peak years devoid of a unified appreciation for their collective greatness, their ability to knock down records at the ease others draw breath or re-define what it truly means to be an elite footballer. 

Camp Messi and Camp Ronaldo were locked too intensely in debate and celebration of one’s brilliance to consider appreciating the other. There were always larger forces at play, wider contexts impossible to ignore like boulders on a highway, limiting the appreciation of what unprecedented, and likely unrepeated, greatness is playing out before us. 

Messi and Ronaldo, Ronaldo, Man Utd
A frustrating return to Manchester United was Cristiano Ronaldo’s last European landing spot

The final chapter

Now, at 38 and 36 respectively, the pair aren’t spring chickens. New kids have knocked them from the block and their time in football is certainly drawing to a close. 

This leads us to where we are now, preparing for their final, low-stakes but undoubtedly still glamorous pre-season bout in Saudi Arabia. The affair won’t inspire much of the same excitement as their previous battle – nothing is on the line and their legacies are all but cemented – but it allows football to reflect on what we’ve had and what we’ll miss. 

Differences can be laid aside like swords at the end of a battle. Fans can emulate their idols, who’ve buried the rivalry, and sit like old friends on a wraparound porch, reminiscing and appreciating greatness, fondly remembering the acrobatic feats and dazzling dribbles.

We will never see the feats Messi and Ronaldo achieved again. No Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland or Endrick will ever come close to emulating their feats even in an era with seemingly neverending games.

More importantly, we will never see a rivalry as intense as theirs, shared between two of the game’s greatest-ever proponents. And even if we do; are remixes ever better than the original?

That their final act is a friendly affair in the Middle East means nothing for a pair of players whose rivalry wasn’t, and won’t be, defined by their head-to-head encounters but by everything else surrounding and intersecting their careers.

Saudi Arabia won’t signal the end of the Messi and Ronaldo rivalry. Instead, it marks the beginning of a new chapter, one of great love and appreciation born through retrospective lenses.

Picture of Kyle Robbins
Kyle Robbins
Kyle is a senior sports writer and producer at Only Sports who lives and breathes sport, with a particular burning passion for everything soccer, rugby league, and cricket. You’ll most commonly find him getting overly hopeful about the Bulldogs and Chelsea’s prospects. Find Kyle on LinkedIn.

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