Who are Al-Hilal? Lionel Messi’s likely new club are Asia’s most successful, were thwarted in signing Ronaldo because of a transfer ban and have an ex-Man United striker up front… so can the star’s arrival boost their lowly 9,000 crowds?
- Lionel Messi’s move to Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia on £522m contract is a ‘done deal’
- The move would bring him into direct competition with Cristiano Ronaldo again
- Al-Hilal are Saudi Arabia’s most successful club of all-time with four Asian titles
Al-Hilal are already the most decorated club in Saudi Arabia and all of Asia, but their global profile is about to go stratospheric with the signing of Lionel Messi.
Reports in France say the Argentine World Cup winner will sign a contract worth a staggering £522million with the Riyadh-based club when he leaves Paris Saint-Germain this summer.
If the move is completed, it raises the intriguing scenario of both Messi and Al-Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo playing in the same city at bitter rivals next season.
Historically, Al-Hilal are the bigger and more successful club. Their 65-year existence has seen them win a record 18 Saudi Professional League titles as well as four AFC Champions League crowns.
Their last continental success came in 2021 when they beat South Korean club Pohang Steelers 2-0 in the final, adding to previous triumphs in 1991, 2000 and 2019.
Messi could be on his way to Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia – one of Asia’s most successful clubs
The Argentine has reportedly signed a massive £522million contract with Al-Hilal – where he will come into direct competition with Al-Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo once again
The Al-Hilal fans turned out in force for their recent derby with Al-Nassr but average attendances at the King Fahd Stadium remain quite low
Portuguese star Ronaldo is attempting to lead Al-Nassr to the Saudi Pro League title having signed for the club after his acrimonious departure from Manchester United
Al-Hilal also reached the latest final, losing 2-1 on aggregate over two legs to Japanese outfit Urawa Red Diamonds in an elongated edition of the tournament owing to a schedule shift.
That was the fifth time they have reached the Champions League final and lost.
They also gave Real Madrid a few problems in the FIFA Club World Cup final in Morocco back in February, eventually losing 5-3.
The current domestic campaign has been a let-down, however. Al-Hilal are only fourth in the Pro League table and, with just five games left, are out of the running for a fourth consecutive title win.
That looks to be going the way of their other big rivals, Al-Ittihad from Jeddah, but at least Al-Hilal recently had the satisfaction of denting Ronaldo’s title ambitions with a 2-0 win over Al-Nassr.
That was the game Ronaldo appeared to grab his crotch in response to Al-Hilal fans who were taunting him with chants of ‘Messi, Messi.’
Earlier, Ronaldo took out Gustavo Cuellar with a ‘chokehold’ straight out of the WWE ring, earning himself a booking from English referee Michael Oliver.
But Ronaldo could actually have been playing in Al-Hilal’s blue colours had things worked out differently following his acrimonious exit from Manchester United in December.
Ronaldo courted controversy when he appeared to grab his crotch in response to Al-Hilal fans shouting ‘Messi, Messi’ in his direction during Al-Nassr’s recent 2-0 loss
Cristiano Ronaldo leaps onto Al-Hilal’s Gustavo Cuellar before wrapping his right arm around his neck in something more akin to a WWE move
The forward then pulled back to wrestle him to the ground before picking up a yellow card
A frustrated Ronaldo was booked by Michael Oliver following the chokehold last month
Nickname: Al-Za’eem (The Leaders), The Blue Waves
Colours: Blue and white
Stadium: King Fahd International Stadium, Riyadh
Average league crowd: 9,517
Coach: Ramon Diaz
Current league position: 4th
Last season: Champions
Al-Hilal made the first move to sign the Portuguese star as early as last summer and, on paper, they would have been a more natural destination given their pedigree.
But Al-Hilal were serving a transfer ban after Mohamed Kanno, the Saudi national team midfielder, extended his contract having agreed to join Al-Nassr.
The ban left Al-Hilal powerless to act as Ronaldo signed for their rivals instead but bringing in Messi isn’t a bad riposte.
They play their football at the 68,000-capacity King Fahd International Stadium, which also stages most national team fixtures and is even playable in the FIFA games.
But low attendances mean most of their home games are played out to a backdrop of empty seats.
Their average league crowd this season is 9,517 and one match back in January attracted just 3,714 spectators. Despite the obvious attraction of Ronaldo, the recent derby was watched by only 24,674.
No doubt Messi’s arrival will entice plenty of floating voters and certainly more so than the current Al-Hilal line-up.
The stand-out name for European football fans is the former Manchester United and current Nigeria striker Odion Ighalo, who joined in January 2022 following a year at another Saudi club, Al-Shabab.
Ighalo, 33, finds the Saudi League much to his liking, with his tally of 18 goals this season second only to the Moroccan Abderrazak Hamdallah of leaders Al-Ittihad.
Former Manchester United striker Odion Ighalo currently leads the attack for Al-Hilal
Ighalo is consoled after Al-Hilal lost last weekend’s AFC Champions League final to Japanese club Urawa Red Diamonds
Messi wouldn’t be the only Argentine in the squad, which also features erstwhile Football Manager wonderkid Luciano Vietto, while close followers of the Qatar World Cup will recognise a few names from the Saudi team.
12 Al-Hilal players made the squad, with Saudi’s two scorers in that famous 2-1 win over eventual champions Argentina – Saleh Al-Shehri and Salem Al-Dawsari – both coming from the club.
Vietto, Colombian Cuellar and Peruvian Andre Carrillo are all Spanish speakers to help Messi settle in but the vast majority of the squad are homegrown.
The coach is also Argentinean. Ramon Diaz, 63, formerly played for River Plate, Napoli, Fiorentina and Inter Milan as a striker.
As a coach, he has been through three spells at River, two at San Lorenzo, two years with Paraguay and, unexpectedly, a year in League Two with Oxford United in 2004-05.
The good news for Al-Hilal is that their place in next season’s AFC Champions League is assured. Their success in recent editions of the tournament means Saudi Arabia gets four spots – three directly into the group phase and another into the play-offs.
The Al-Hilal team line up for the recent second leg of the AFC Champions League final – they were defeated 1-0 on the day and 2-1 on aggregate
Saudi Arabia international Nasser Al-Dawsari shakes hands with Al-Hilal coach Ramon Diaz
Al-Dawsari celebrates after scoring in Saudi Arabia’s famous World Cup win over Argentina
Saudi Professional League – 18 wins (record)
King Cup – 9 wins
Crown Prince Cup – 13 wins(record)
Saudi Super Cup – 3 wins (record)
Federation Cup – 7 wins (record)
AFC Champions League – 4 wins (record)
Asian Cup Winners’ Cup – 2 wins (shared record)
Asian Super Cup – 2 wins (shared record)
Because the competition is reverting to an autumn-to-spring schedule rather than spring-to-autumn, Al-Hilal qualify as the 2021-22 Saudi champions.
They could also have qualified by winning the Saudi King Cup when they take on Al-Wehda this Friday.
Messi has won the European Champions League three times and would no doubt love to win the Asian version too.
He could be joined in doing so by his former Barcelona team-mates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, who are also being linked to Al-Hilal.
Messi, of course, already has close ties with Saudi. He makes a reported £25m-a-year for working as a tourism ambassador for the country.
It was an unauthorised trip to Riyadh on what was meant to be a day off that landed him in hot water at PSG last week.
Visiting with his wife Antonella – who apparently has reservations about moving to the country – and sons Ciro and Mateo, they posed for a nice set of pictures which no doubt will soon adorn the Saudi holiday brochures.
Messi was pictured holding a falcon, playing the local board game Carrom, trying out some palm-weaving and playing arcade games at an amusement park.
When Ronaldo arrived in the country earlier this year, no stone was left unturned in making him feel welcome.
An exterior view of Al-Hilal’s home – the 68,000-capacity King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh
The Saudi club pushed Real Madrid hard in February’s FIFA Club World Cup final, losing 5-3
He stayed in the luxury Kingdom Suite at the Four Seasons Hotel, enjoying sweeping views of Riyadh and plenty of haute cuisine on the room service. The bill for his stay was estimated at £250,000.
Now Ronaldo has moved into more permanent accommodation, Al-Hilal could put Messi and his entourage up there as well.
If Messi’s contact is worth £522m, it will dwarf the £175m-a-year Ronaldo is making down the road at Al-Nassr. It should also cover anything from the mini-bar.
What will Lionel Messi’s lifestyle in Saudi Arabia look like as he ‘closes in on £552MILLION deal’?
Lionel Messi is bound for Saudi Arabia then.
After months of speculation over whether or not he would join nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo in the Middle East, reports in France revealed on Tuesday morning that a deal is complete.
The Argentine World Cup winner, 35, will sign a massive contract worth £522million at Saudi side Al-Hilal.
It will also see him reignite his long-standing rivalry with Ronaldo, who plays for Al-Hilal’s rivals Al-Nassr in the Gulf state.
As Saudi Arabia continues to make power plays to establish itself as a global sports hub, the prospect of the two greatest players of their, or any, generation going head-to-head in their league is a mouth-watering one.
Lionel Messi, wife Antonela Roccuzzo and sons Mateo and Ciro pose with horses during their recent visit to Saudi Arabia which led to the Argentine player being suspended by PSG
Messi poses with a falcon during his Saudi visit amid rumours he could play football there
Cristiano Ronaldo with his family in Saudi Arabia after he signed for Al-Nassr back in January
Ronaldo and his partner Georgina Rodriguez enjoy the sunshine in the Saudi capital
At 35, Messi is moving from the autumn to the winter of his astonishing career.
While Messi – and his family – may have preferred a move back to Barcelona, where he emerged from the academy ranks to become their greatest player, the Spanish club’s well-documented financial issues have proven to be an unbeatable hurdle.
In order to register Messi’s contract with LaLiga, who run Spain’s top division, Barcelona needed to lose around €200m [£175m] from their existing wage bill.
If they re-signed Messi, who currently commands wages approaching £1m-a-week, they would have had to sell several existing big earners to stay within the league limits.
So while Barcelona fans were beginning to get excited that Messi’s two-week PSG suspension after an unsanctioned ambassadorial trip to Saudi could have led him back to the Nou Camp, it was never likely to become reality.
There was also interest from Inter Miami in the United States but in terms of pure financial incentive, the Saudi offer blows everyone else out the water.
Messi has become disillusioned with Paris Saint-Germain and will leave the club this summer
The fallout marks the end of a lukewarm love affair between Messi and the Parisian club
Messi already has ties to the country. Last year, he agreed to a £25m-a-year deal to work as a tourism ambassador for the Saudis.
His visit with wife Antonella and their children Mateo, seven, and Ciro, five, last week saw them pose for a set of nice promotional pictures which the Saudis no doubt plan to use in their holiday brochures.
There were snaps of Messi with a falcon perched on his arm, playing board game Carrom, of the family learning the local craft of palm-weaving and everyone playing arcade games at a Riyadh amusement park.
The Saudi minister of tourism Ahmed Al Khateeb tweeted: ‘I am happy to welcome Messi and his family to Saudi to enjoy the magical tourist destinations and authentic experiences.
‘We welcome visitors from all around the world to experience a unique trip to Saudi Arabia and its hospitality.’
Messi and his son try out the board game Carrom during the promotional trip to Riyadh
The Messi family learned the art of palm-weaving during their Middle East trip this week
The family visited an amusement park in Riyadh as part of Messi’s ambassadorial role
The Saudis are keen to make use of Messi’s global profile to promote tourism to the country
Messi and his wife pose for pictures during their visit to Diriyah earlier this week
Trips to the petting zoo or excursions to Diriyah could become regular occurrences when they live in the kingdom and for an idea of the lifestyle, he only has to look at Ronaldo.
The 38-year-old Portuguese star signed for Al-Nassr at the beginning of the year having left Manchester United by mutual consent following his criticism of the club in an interview with Piers Morgan.
Initially, Ronaldo and his family were staying in the luxury Kingdom Suite at the Four Seasons hotel in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
The 3,000ft suite, spread over two floors, offers sweeping views over the city and is so expensive there isn’t even a cost listed on the hotel’s website. Estimates put the cost of the bill for Ronaldo and his entourage at over £250,000.
The five-star hotel’s website boasts: ‘Entertain guests with unparalleled views of Riyadh. Our newest two-storey suite spans the 48th and 50th floors of the hotel, with a soaring living room, a private office, a dining room and a media room.’
Ronaldo and his family could enjoy ‘the best of dishes from China, Japan, India and the Middle East, with the freshest ingredients to order’ delivered directly to their room.
Cristiano Ronaldo and his family stayed at the Four Seasons hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Ronaldo is on a £175million-a-year deal at Al Nassr but Messi’s contract could be higher
Messi and his family could certainly stay here until they find more permanent accommodation should they arrive over the summer.
Ronaldo, partner Georgina Rodriguez and their five children moved out of the hotel and into a new home in February, just in time for a visit from his mother Dolores Aveiro.
The new home is said to be in an exclusive compound with state-of-the-art security and all amenities such as gyms, shops and restaurants nearby. It is understood the family are renting the mansion.
Ronaldo and his family have also sampled some of the exclusive restaurants on offer in Riyadh, including Miyazo, which offers ‘contemporary Japanese cuisine driven by passion.’
He also shared a dinner of Lebanese food with Saudi minister of sports Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Faisal in Diriyah.
We’ve also seen Ronaldo attend various events related to his newly-adopted country. He donned traditional dress and posed with a sword to mark the anniversary of the country’s foundation back in February.
Pictures from inside the Four Seasons Hotel in Riyadh, where Ronaldo and his family stayed
The 38-year-old star stayed in the hotel’s lavish ‘Kingdom Suite’ – which covers two floors
Messi, of course, would be even better placed to fulfil his ambassadorial role if he moved to Saudi itself but given Ronaldo has 579 million Instagram followers and Georgina 50m, simply posting any kind of picture in the country is priceless advertising.
On the pitch, Ronaldo has scored 12 goals in 16 matches so far for Al-Nassr, who are currently second in the Pro League standings, five points behind leaders Al-Ittihad.
With four matches remaining, Ronaldo still has the chance to lead his team to title glory, though it hasn’t been entirely smooth.
When Al-Nassr lost 2-0 to Al-Hilal last month, rival fans chanted ‘Messi, Messi’ at Ronaldo, who appeared to grab his crotch as he walked off the pitch. It does at least prove Messi will be a hugely popular addition to the league.
The act was heavily criticised in some quarters, with lawyer Nouf bin Ahmed saying it was ‘a crime of public dishonour’ before calling for Ronaldo to be ‘arrested and deported.’
Ronaldo gives the thumbs up as he attended Saudi founding anniversary events in February
The Al Nassr player posed with a sword and in traditional dress amid Founding Day events
The star attended the boxing match between Tommy Fury and Jake Paul back in February
Ronaldo and his partner Georgina pose for a nice Instagram picture
When coach Rudi Garcia left the club by mutual consent, it was reported the reason was that Ronaldo ‘wasn’t satisfied’ with his tactics. It was also speculated Garcia had a ‘blazing dressing room row’ with the team.
But everything Ronaldo has ever done is under the microscope and an insight by Piers Morgan to Tatler magazine earlier this year said the footballer and his family were ‘absolutely loving it’ in Saudi.
When Rodriguez made her social debut at the Joy Awards, she was ‘the talk of the city.’
Throughout their spectacular careers Messi and Ronaldo have always competed goal-for-goal and trophy-for-trophy. They have always been rivals, though the frostiness has thawed with passing age.
We will soon find out if Riyadh is big enough for the both of them.
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