Cristiano Ronaldo recovered from a punch in the face to score twice against Paris Saint-Germain on Thursday in a lively clash with his great rival Lionel Messi that demonstrated the financial firepower of the resource-rich Gulf.
Ronaldo, 37, was decked by PSG keeper Keylor Navas’s flailing fist but he drilled the resulting penalty and then added another in a 5-4 exhibition defeat, his first appearance since moving to Saudi Arabia in a deal said to total more than 400 million euros.
For Qatar-owned PSG, Messi and Kylian Mbappe both scored and Neymar missed a penalty before they withdrew on the hour-mark alongside Ronaldo, who was representing a composite Saudi side, to leave the world’s four best-paid players watching from the bench in Riyadh.
Hundreds of millions of euros worth of footballers were on view for the exhibition game in the Saudi capital, which comes just weeks after neighbouring Qatar spent lavishly on the first World Cup on Arab soil, won by Messi’s Argentina.
Among the packed crowd at the 69,000-seat King Fahd Stadium was a Saudi real estate mogul who paid $2.6 million at auction for a ticket giving him dressing-room access to the players.
After Ronaldo led out the Riyadh Season Team, drawn from his new club Al Nassr and Saudi rivals Al Hilal, to flame-throwers and tickertape, Messi opened the scoring after just three minutes when he was fed by the livewire Mbappe.
– Flush on the cheekbone –
Ronaldo’s first touch in Saudi football was a throw-in but he had a shot saved and a penalty appeal waved away before Navas caught him flush on the cheekbone as they challenged for a high ball.
Ronaldo, still rubbing the red mark on his face and grimacing, fired past Navas to make it 1-1 on 34 minutes.
Five minutes later, PSG’s Juan Bernat was given a straight red card for a foul on Salem Al-Dawsari — Saudi Arabia’s match-winner in their famous group-stage World Cup victory over Argentina.
Messi, perhaps irritated by the intensity of the mid-season friendly, aimed a reproachful look at Ronaldo, his sparring partner in their days playing for Barcelona and Real Madrid.
PSG were soon back in front thanks to Marquinhos’s delicate finish before Neymar missed his spot-kick, shooting tamely after a trademark stutter run-up.
Minutes later, Ronaldo hit his second equaliser deep into first-half injury time, heading against the post and then burying the rebound to make it 2-2 at half-time.
Mbappe put PSG back in front shortly after the break, turning his marker inside-out and laying on an easy finish for Sergio Ramos, before Hyun-soo Jang found a third equaliser for the hosts.
But Mbappe thumped home a penalty and Hugo Ekitike scored to make it 5-3 before Brazilian striker Talisca grabbed the Riyadh team’s fourth goal at the death.
It was the first outing in oil-rich Saudi for Ronaldo, who will make his Saudi Pro League debut for Al Nassr on Sunday after signing for more than 200 million euros, according to a source close to the club.
The veteran Portuguese star will be paid an additional 200 million euros, the source told AFP, to be an ambassador for Saudi Arabia’s expected 2030 World Cup joint hosting bid with Egypt and Greece.