The Messi and Ronaldo rivalry is ending, but the one between MLS and the Saudi Pro League is just beginning

The Messi and Ronaldo rivalry is ending

Lionel Messi and Inter Miami have already played two preseason matches ahead of the 2024 MLS season, which is less than a month away from its start.

But the second year of Project Messi actually started this week. The GOAT and his new-look Herons – striker Luis Suarez arrived in South Florida this winter, joining former Barcelona teammates Messi, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets on Inter’s roster – are in Saudi Arabia to play a friendly match, which They will start on Monday against Al Hilal.

However, the second one is bigger. Thursday’s meeting with Cristiano Ronaldo and Al-Nassr will be the 37th and final time that the two best players of their generation will face each other if Ronaldo is available. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to recover from the minor injury that caused Al-Nassr to reschedule some matches in China, but if Ronaldo can participate then the appeal of that matchup is clear.

Yet perhaps there lies an even more interesting subplot beyond the Messi-Ronaldo story. These two games could also be seen as a battle for bragging rights between two of the fastest growing circuits on planet football.

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Neither MLS nor the Saudi Pro League can be considered among the global elite right now. In Europe the Big Five – England’s Premier League, Italy’s Serie A, France’s Ligue 1, Germany’s Bundesliga and Spain’s La Liga – still dominate.

But MLS sent more players to the 2022 World Cup than any league outside the Big Five. One of them was Messi’s compatriot Thiago Almada, who became the first active MLS player to win soccer’s highest award.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s entirely Pro League-based national team was the only team to defeat the Albiceleste in Qatar. Al Hilal is the most successful club in Asia’s Champions League history, having won two of their record four titles since 2019. Both countries have home World Cups in the near future, which will also raise the profile of both leagues. The US will host the 2026 tournament along with its neighbors Canada and Mexico. Eight years later, Saudi Arabia will host the Games’ biggest event for the first time.

In the club game, MLS and the Saudi Pro League are already the best of the rest when it comes to potential and pure star power. With the backing of the oil-rich country’s sovereign wealth fund, the Saudis successfully lured Ronaldo to the kingdom in early 2023, and several other stars followed him there last summer. Brazilian headliner Neymar, who played with Messi at both Barca and Paris Saint-Germain, has joined Al Hilal, although Neymar’s torn ACL will prevent a reunion with Messi on Monday. UEFA Champions League winners Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and Fabinho signed contracts with defending champions Al Ittihad.

Messi was also at the top of the Saudi wish list. Instead, he turned down an ungodly deal worth more than $500 million per season to take his talents to South Beach. MLS has attracted living legends throughout its nearly 30-year history, undoubtedly the most famous being current Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham

But in recent years the league has mostly bucked that trend, preferring to be a stepping stone for emerging South Americans like Almada who can be sent to Europe for a handsome profit a few years later.

However, established name-brand stars are still clearly the main selling point for both leagues, and key to increasing their popularity outside their borders.

It will still be interesting to see how these leagues stack up with their biggest names. Fair or not, this week serves as a referendum on both.

“The Saudi league is better than the MLS,” Ronaldo said shortly before Messi’s debut in Fort Lauderdale last July. Now their league has a chance to prove it — if it can.

Ronaldo also recently claimed that the Pro League is stronger than France’s top division, which is obviously beyond reality. Last September, British analytics firm Opta Sports ranked the relative strength of thousands of clubs across 413 leagues in 183 FIFA member countries. On average, the Saudi Pro League ranked 27th. MLS finished 15th. Ligue 1 was in fifth place.

It is certain that Al Hilal and Al-Nassr will be determined to give their best performance against Inter Miami. Playing in front of our fans at home should help. So should the visitors’ grueling itinerary go ahead: The Herons spent the week traveling to El Salvador and Dallas before boarding their 15-hour, 7,500-mile charter flight to Riyadh late Thursday night.

Inter Miami has a lot to prove in Saudi Arabia as well. Messi couldn’t prevent his new club from missing the MLS Cup playoffs last season – Miami had the league’s worst record before his arrival. But with him, Alba, Busquets and Suarez all available from day one, they are considered legitimate title contenders in 2024.

Miami still could not win or score in either of its first two tuneups, losing to FC Dallas a few days after a scoreless tie with the Salvadoran national team. The pressure is already there.

So expect two close, hard-fought fixtures this week, hopefully culminating in one last and properly celebrated Messi-Ronaldo meeting. That rivalry is ending. The rivalry between MLS and the Saudi Pro League has just begun.


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