Lionel Messi completed his World Cup dreams on Sunday, bringing Argentina its third World Cup with a penalty shootout win over France. In contrast, his nemesis, Cristiano Ronaldo, returned home after a teary farewell at Al Thumama Stadium in Qatar.
But as one of the most criticized World Cups ever played wrapped up, another controversial bid is emerging in Saudi Arabia, where Messi and Ronaldo might soon share a different stage, this time as ambassadors for Saudi sports.
“There are only two things that can bring Ronaldo and Messi together,” Simon Chadwick, a professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School in Paris, said in an interview over Zoom. “One is Louis Vuitton. And the other one is Saudi Arabia.”
Before Portugal was eliminated from the World Cup, tabloids suggested that Ronaldo was on his way to joining a Saudi Arabian club after his recent departure from Manchester United. “If he’s going to announce that he’s moving to Saudi Arabia, he will want the World Cup out of the way, because he doesn’t want to play second fiddle to Messi,” Chadwick said. “And I imagine shortly after that, Saudi Arabia will announce their official bid to host the 2030 World Cup.”
It would follow a pattern. In May, Messi signed an agreement to promote Saudi Arabia, and within months, the country started hinting at its 2030 bid, with the hints growing stronger by the week. Tourism minister Ahmed Al Khateeb said Saudi Arabia is considering a bid with Greece and Egypt. “The three countries would invest heavily in infrastructure and definitely would be ready,” Al Khateeb said. “And I know by then Saudi Arabia would have built state-of-the-art stadiums and fan zones.”
However, Saudi Arabia’s deep pockets don’t guarantee entry. Earlier in August, Uruguay, the host of first-ever World Cup in 1930, expressed its interest in co-hosting the tournament with Argentina, Paraguay and Chile. The Uruguay announcement was part of a ceremony inside Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario, site of the inaugural tournament 92 years ago.
“Hosting a World Cup is a huge undertaking,” Miguel Simon, ESPN’s senior sports commentator from Argentina, said a phone call from Qatar. “We have not heard much about the bid since the initial announcement, given our countries are dealing with serious economic problems and cannot spend money for stadiums.”
Messi was not present at the ceremony, but in 2018, he was named as the ambassador of the bid with the Uruguayan soccer star Luis Suarez, his then-teammate in Barcelona. Fernando Marin, the coordinator of the World Cup organizing committee, assured journalists Messi and Suarez were on board. “We told him (Messi) about our aims,” he told AFP that day. “And he feels it’s doable.”
Four years later, neither Uruguay’s bid nor Messi’s participation is guaranteed. “I’m not a gambling man,” Chadwick said, “but if I were, I would put money on Saudi Arabia for 2030.”
The Saudis have done extensive groundwork to play host to the most important soccer event in the world, Chadwick said, as part of an investment strategy focused on sports development and positioning itself as an event destination. The country has already secured the Asian Winter Games in 2029, an annual Formula 1 race, and several UFC fights and high-profile boxing matches.
Messi’s signing with Qatari-owned Paris Saint Germain last year tied him tightly to this year’s World Cup hosts. But even before that, the soccer star had a relationship with Qatar’s neighbors. Messi visited Saudi Arabia in 2017 and again in 2019, when he played a friendly against Brazil during Riyadh Season, a mega entertainment event the country hosts from November to March. Last year he was back promoting Jeddah Season, a two-month event on the coast. Messi published a promotional post on Instagram after his visit, raving about the event and the host country. According to The Athletic, the soccer player has been offered 25 million pounds a year to play in the Saudi league, five times what Ronaldo was offered. Messi’s manager did not respond to Sportico’s request for comment.
“I have seen thousands of non-Argentines here wearing Messi’s jersey,” Simon said. “I think his popularity here is due to the contract he signed to promote Saudi Arabia’s tourism, plus he plays for PSG, a team owned by Qataris. He is a global celebrity with a huge following in this region.”
With a population of 35 million, Saudi Arabia is a different venue compared to its neighbor Qatar, which has 300,000 people. The national league of soccer was founded in 1976 and is the most popular sport in the kingdom. But Chadwick said the argument for hosting is not about having a local audience.
“I think there’s something about positioning Saudi Arabia as an Afro-Eurasian bid,” Chadwick said. “A World Cup in Egypt, Greece and Saudi Arabia gives (FIFA President Gianni) Infantino and FIFA a really interesting proposition. Infantino will say, ‘I didn’t take the World Cup to one or two countries; I took it to three continents.’”
“Now that Argentine won the World Cup, the bid to bring the World Cup there makes more sense,” Simon said.
The 2030 World Cup host will be selected in 2024 at the 74th FIFA Congress.