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Cristiano Ronaldo: Saudi Professional League is ‘much better’ than Major League Soccer

Cristiano Ronaldo: Saudi Professional League is ‘much better’ than Major League Soccer

Cristiano Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo told members of the media Monday that the Saudi Professional League is superior to Major League Soccer. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Ronaldo, who plays for Al Nassr of the Saudi Pro League, was asked about potentially joining Lionel Messi in MLS. “No,” he replied after his team’s 5-0 defeat in a friendly against La Liga club Celta Vigo. “I think that Arabia is a much better league than the United States.”
  • Ronaldo, the highest paid player in the world, makes £175 million ($217.4 million) a year. According to sources close to Al Nassr, who wish to remain anonymous in order to protect their positions, the club will pay a tenth of that wage, with the rest covered by the Saudi state.
  • Messi signed a deal with Inter Miami through 2025 with the option to stay through the 2026 season. He will receive around $50-60 million annually, though that includes the value of his equity in the franchise.
  • Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber said Sunday he is “not threatened” by the growing influence of the Saudi Professional League in the global football landscape.

The Athletic’s instant analysis:

Making sense of Ronaldo’s comments

What was the hand-picked forerunner of Saudi’s sporting revolution supposed to say? That he’d back FC Cincinnati to win the Pro League, too?

While these comments were spontaneous, it was also an inevitable question. Ronaldo and Messi have been inseparable in conversation for the better part of two decades as the two dominated club football in Europe year after year. We may never see a stretch quite like 2008-2017, which saw the two share complete custody of the storied Ballon d’Or trophy without letting a third player win the prize. While Messi won two more trophies after Luka Modric’s streak-buster in 2018 to bring his total to seven, Ronaldo won his fifth and almost certain to be final Ballon d’Or in 2017. There’s also a chance that Messi will earn an eighth on the back of his World Cup-winning turn in December.

While the stories of their careers will almost certainly largely be told by their European and international exploits, the parallels have continued over the last seven months. Both have decided to append their legacies onto two ambitious leagues from outside of the sport’s most lucrative continent. While Ronaldo was the first of several superstars to take up residency in Saudi Arabia, Messi has arrived in MLS in part to hopefully boost American interest in soccer as part of his legacy, much like Pelé before him.

Given their peerless global fame, the quality of the players’ new leagues is bound to be a frequent topic of debate even after they inevitably hang up their boots. In a roundtable over the weekend, Garber said that he does not feel that the league will be threatened by the Saudi Pro League’s newfound investment.

“I remember we were that league and everybody was saying, ‘What’s happening in America with Major League Soccer?’ And then what impact did that have on the rest of the world,” Garber said. “The rest of the world said, ‘Well, it’s just the crazy Americans, right? We don’t have to worry about them.’ I’m the co-chair of the World League Forum and the Saudi League has been a part of the World League Forum, there was just a meeting in London this past week. They are a contributing member of the global professional football community and their league is going to continue to grow and evolve and figure out how they can achieve what it is that they want to achieve for their fans, and whatever it is that they’re looking to achieve with their league overall.

“I’ve seen it happen with China and I wasn’t concerned about that any more than I’m concerned about what’s happening in Saudi Arabia. It’s quite the opposite. The fact that we can spread the power and influence of professional football around the world, I think gives us all or in emerging markets, an opportunity to think that it’s not just about Europe. Right?”

In January, sports intelligence agency Twenty First Group ranked the SPL as the 59th-best domestic league in the world; at the same point in time, MLS was assessed to rank 29th. The star-driven approach to growth (forgoing the more patient investment in domestic player development) has also led to comparisons to the recently deflated Chinese Super League. And, it should be mentioned, Ronaldo faced potential litigation for an alleged sexual assault in Las Vegas in 2009; while that motion was dismissed in June 2022, the years of speculation could impact his point of view on anything related to the USA.

At the end of the day, great players will almost never admit that they’re playing in a perceived lesser competition. That goes double when their rival makes a similarly headline-grabbing move. Nevertheless, their moves abroad have forever added a new wrinkle to the Messi and Ronaldo story. — Rueter

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(Photo: Mohammed Saad / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

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