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Blood Money FC

Shame on Lionel Messi

He’s reportedly heading to Saudi Arabia to cash in—and help a murderous regime launder its reputation.

Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Lionel Messi during the 2022 World Cup

At the start of the next soccer season, the two greatest players of the twenty-first century may be together again. The pair are, to be fair, somewhat diminished from the peak of their powers. Cristiano Ronaldo, at 38, is in the midst of a long and increasingly steep decline and is still smarting from the end of his second stint at Manchester United—in, it should be underlined, exceedingly and comically undignified circumstances involving Piers Morgan. In spite of these indignities, he is still Cristiano Ronaldo the brand: a marble model of masculinity, essentially sentient abs. On occasion, he is still Cristiano Ronaldo the player, capable of conjuring a towering header from even the flimsiest cross.

Much nearer to the peak of his prime is Lionel Messi. While he is undeniably Ronaldo’s superior in nearly every metric, the Argentine has slipped in recent years but is still capable of magic, albeit (somehow) at an even slower pace than before. His time at Paris Saint-Germain has been underwhelming—and is coming to an end in acrimonious circumstances—but that hardly matters: He brought a World Cup to Argentina in late December in the greatest final of any sport ever played and cemented his status in soccer’s pantheon. They are older (Ronaldo is 38; Messi is 35) but still far ahead of the next generation in terms of fame—both can still lay claim to being the sport’s biggest stars. And very soon, they might be reunited on the pitch, testing what remains of their abilities in competition.

It is, in some ways, a fitting end for both careers. The two men have been tethered together nearly for well over a decade; Messi’s Barcelona and Ronaldo’s Real Madrid battled one another relentlessly in the late-aughts and 2010s in matches that cemented their legends as players and as brand names—the pair are, for all intents and purposes, anthropomorphic business empires. (Like most conglomerates, both are tax cheats.)

What is surprising about a possible Messi and Ronaldo reunion is where they will be playing. They will not be in La Liga, where they became the dominant superstars of the era. Nor will they be in the English Premier League, currently the strongest competition in Europe. They won’t be playing in France, where Messi has spent the last two years in a kind of decadent exile, or in Italy, which still retains some of the ragged glory of its heyday in the 1990s. Instead, they will be playing in Saudi Arabia—Ronaldo has been there since the winter, and Messi, according to reports on Monday, is on the way out of PSG to join him next season. There, the pair of legendary footballers will reinvent themselves by helping a murderous regime launder its human rights record.

It isn’t any more complicated than that. It is exactly that depressing. Cristiano Ronaldo signed for Al-Nassr shortly after exiting Manchester United last year; he is reportedly being paid more than 200 million euros a year. Now, reports are emerging that Lionel Messi will also sign in Saudi Arabia—for Al-Nassr’s rival, Al Hilal, which would rekindle the Messi–Ronaldo rivalry—for more than that amount per year, maybe even double that amount.

For Messi and Ronaldo, it may be all about the money. For Saudi Arabia, it’s part of a larger effort to present a kinder, gentler face to the world—one without starving children in Yemen, dismemberments of American journalists, and the subjugation of women. It’s also a reminder of the continued power of sportswashing. The 2022 World Cup in Qatar, arguably the most egregious example of regimes using culture and sports to launder their human rights records, will soon seem quaint: It will only get worse from here.

As last year’s World Cup began, there was a glimmer of hope. The entire spectacle, staged in Qatar, was grim and depressing. The small, oil-rich country had only acquired the 2022 World Cup—held in winter because of the desert nation’s treacherously hot summers—through a rampant campaign of bribery and corruption that was both dispiritingly familiar and grandiloquent to any longtime FIFA watcher. FIFA’s rationale for taking its premiere competition to Qatar was similarly bleak. Qatar wanted the World Cup so as to ingratiate itself with the world for geopolitical reasons—it had been locked in various disputes with its neighbors, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia, for years. Additionally, the nation hoped that a dash of international sports razzle-dazzle would help launder its dismal human rights record.

But as the first game approached, there was a sense that maybe, just maybe, things might change—that at the very least, the rest of the world might see through the Qatari’s con. Qatar was hardly the first regime to use a World Cup as a soft power spectacle. The 2018 competition in Russia was similarly dispiriting (unlike 2022’s edition, the on-the-pitch product was as poor as the geopolitical skullduggery), but it ended up being a reputational coup for Vladimir Putin and his goons all the same, if only a short-lived one.

However, with the eyes of the world on Qatar, the press attention was unrelenting and unforgiving: There were stories about the country’s horrific treatment of the migrant laborers who had built the tournament’s stadia and otherwise readied the country to welcome the world; these workers were for all intents and purposes enslaved. Further coverage alit on other Qatari grotesqueries: its lack of free expression, its brutal treatment of homosexuals, and the general subjugation of Qatari women.

Qatari officials were furious at the negative press attention and forced FIFA’s cartoon supervillain of a general secretary, Gianni Infantino, to intercede with one of the most memorable and humiliating press conferences in recent memory. (“I feel like a migrant laborer,” said Infantino, who had been living in Qatar for years under somewhat mysterious circumstances said, before claiming that he understood discrimination because he was picked on for having red hair as a child in Switzerland.) The press attention felt like a seismic shift: The soft power days of the World Cup were ending. A country with a similarly terrible human rights record might think twice before welcoming the press attention that comes with hosting global games.

But not long after Argentina hoisted the trophy, and the world turned their attention elsewhere, it’s clear that the bad actors of sportswashing—most notably Saudi Arabia, but also Qatar—have really only strengthened their positions and view the 2022 World Cup as both a successful and a model to follow. Qatar wants to host the 2036 Olympics. And Saudi Arabia is lining up Messi and Ronaldo for their domestic league—and have their hooks in the English Premier League’s Newcastle United, who will most likely play in the UEFA Champions League next season, less than two years after being bought by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.

The fact that Messi and Ronaldo will (likely) be in Saudi Arabia next year is, to some extent, due to circumstances that are beyond their control. Ronaldo’s declining skills, diva-like behavior, and wage demands left him with few takers in Europe. And while Messi still has some sharpness and invention left in his game, he, like Ronaldo, commands a salary so stratospherically high that few teams are willing to pay it—certainly the cutting-edge teams that are angling for Europe’s biggest prizes have little to gain from handing over a small fortune to an aging playmaker, even if he had just brought home a World Cup trophy. The list of teams with the resources to sign a player like Messi is exceedingly small and the demands of La Liga’s financial rules and financial fair play rules make a return to Barcelona unlikely. Hence the appeal of cashing in, and selling out, in Saudi Arabia.

Still, it goes without saying that there were other options open to Messi and Ronaldo—though there can be little doubt they’d have been far less lucrative. Nevertheless, that the two men (and Messi in particular) have decided to soil their legacies is a sad coda to the Qatar World Cup. Of course, this is not the first time Messi has acted as a shill for Saudi Arabia. He is currently an “ambassador” for the regime, a role for which he is reportedly paid more than $100 million. This is particularly traitorous given his real purpose in Saudi Arabia: to help the country win a bid for the 2030 World Cup—a tournament that Messi’s home nation, Argentina, also hopes to win.

Saudi Arabia, unlike Qatar, does have some history of enjoying soccer—their fans at the 2022 World Cup were one of the highlights of the tournament, particularly after the team improbably beat Messi’s Argentina in a thrilling group stage match. But Messi and Ronaldo are not being brought to the Kingdom for the purpose of entertainment and they are not heading there for the atmosphere in Riyad’s stadia. They’re there to help extend the Gulf State’s extend their soft power efforts and launder the reputation of its brutal leader, Mohammed bin Salman.

Sports—and soccer, in particular—have always been put to political purposes. Sportswashing has existed for a long time. But we are now on the doorstep of a new and shameful era that could reach new heights in cynicism, with aging superstar athletes being paid a king’s ransom to serve as the pawns of despots in a new great game. The sport itself, and what it means to a world of ordinary fans, no longer matters. Instead, the players—and, increasingly, the teams—exist as part of a larger, darker plan to push the beautiful game off the pitch and leave something tawdry in its place.