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‘This is nothing’: Ronaldo vs Messi just the start for Saudis

While the matchup between two of the world’s best footballers offered a thrilling spectacle in Riyadh, the wealthy kingdom of Saudi Arabia has bigger plans for using sports to improve its international reputation.

Loud explosions signalled the conclusion of Thursday’s exhibition match between Lionel Messi’s Paris Saint-Germain and a club featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, a newcomer to the Saudi Pro League. The visitors won, 5-4.

Attended by over 60,000 supporters at the historic King Fahd Stadium, the friendly had all the trappings of a major game, including video assistant referees, flame throwers, ticker tape, and medal presentations.

The desert kingdom, though, is already promising more, with the World Cup, Summer Olympics, and possibly even a Winter Olympics all in its goals.

According to Turki Al-Sheikh, head of the General Entertainment Authority, “this is a major match but… this is nothing (compared to) what will happen with Vision 2030,” where “Vision 2030” is Saudi Arabia’s ambitious growth goal.

Saudi Arabia is trying to open up its conservative, long-closed society to the world just five years after allowing its first non-Muslim tourists and allowing women to drive.

The world’s largest oil exporter has been accused of “sports cleaning” its human rights record after spending hundreds of millions on deals like the Ronaldo capture, Formula One racing in Jeddah, and the lucrative LIV Golf tour.

After neighbouring Qatar held the World Cup in November and December, Saudi Arabia has announced plans to host the men’s and women’s Asian Cup, the Asian Games on an Olympic-sized field, and the Asian Winter Games on artificial snow in the coming years.

The de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has ambitious plans to modernise the Saudi economy and wean it off oil before the rest of the world catches on.

Al Sheikh predicted that the Saudi people would be surprised by the crown prince once again.

“At any time, we are prepared to meet his requests. However, the next step is far bigger.”

The Saudi Arabian sports minister told AFP last year that hosting the Olympics was the “ultimate ambition,” and the country is already exploring a joint bid for the 2030 World Cup with Egypt and Greece.

A source close to the club said that the recruitment of Ronaldo for around 200 million euros and a separate 200 million contract to promote the World Cup bid was the club’s greatest coup to date.

There has been talk that Messi, who plays for Qatar-owned PSG but is a paid Saudi tourist ambassador, may follow the 37-year-old Portuguese to the Pro League after his unexpected switch.

According to Georgetown University Qatar visiting associate professor Danyel Reiche, “Ronaldo’s transfer is just the beginning.”

Whether or if Messi follows suit, other A-list athletes are likely to relocate to Saudi Arabia.

Reiche predicted that, similar to what happened in Qatar during the World Cup, Saudi Arabian problems including women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and migrant labour will be in the “global spotlight.”

However, he stressed that the Gulf monarchies don’t use high-profile sports to ignore human rights issues.

When it comes to human rights breaches, “in Saudi Arabia, it’s part of a bigger policy of opening up society,” Reiche explained.

He went on to remark that the game on Thursday delivered a “very strong message” since the players knew they couldn’t rely just on military and political might but also needed soft power.

“The entire globe has taken notice of this. Having this kind of game is also a way of saying, “look at how we’re evolving.””