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MLS vs Saudi Pro League: Cristiano Ronaldo is earning the big bucks but Lionel Messi will be playing at a higher standard – so which ‘football retirement home’ comes out on top?

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If nothing else, you cannot fault Cristiano Ronaldo’s timing. 

It was just one day after long-term rival Lionel Messi’s move to American side Inter Miami that Ronaldo chose to speak out, insisting the Saudi Arabian league (where he plays) is better than the MLS (where Messi plays). Coincidence? I think not.

The 38-year-old veteran’s insistence that ‘I’m sure I won’t play in Europe again. I want to play in Saudi Arabia’ has the faint whiff of a spurned lover insisting, tears running down his cheeks, that the divorce was his idea and he doesn’t want his wife back.

Saudi Arabia’s Pro League and the USA’s MLS are widely seen as the home of the has-been geriatrics looking to earn a last big pay-day – though those reputations might not hold true any more – but is Ronaldo right? Does Saudi outstrip the States?

Below, Mail Sport assesses which ‘football retirement home’ comes out on top, in terms of players, standard of football, lifestyle, wages and fans, potentially adding another category to the eternal Messi vs Ronaldo Greatest Of All Time debate.

Cristiano Ronaldo insists the Saudi league is better than the MLS, where Lionel Messi plays

Cristiano Ronaldo insists the Saudi league is better than the MLS, where Lionel Messi plays

The Portuguese's long-term rival Messi, 36, was unveiled as an Inter Miami player last weekend

The Portuguese’s long-term rival Messi, 36, was unveiled as an Inter Miami player last weekend

And below, Mail Sport assesses which 'footballing retirement home' comes out on top

And below, Mail Sport assesses which ‘footballing retirement home’ comes out on top

Players 

Major League is very much still the preserve of footballers one might kindly call ‘experienced’ and unkindly call ‘past their sell-by date’. The vast majority of designated players (DPs – star players whose wages do not count towards the salary cap) are often attackers and typically fall into two categories. 

Veterans of European football like Christian Benteke (32), Lorenzo Insigne (32), Javier Hernandez (35) and Douglas Costa (32), or players not quite up to Premier League level, e.g. Ravel Morrison, Victor Wanyama, Teemu Pukki and Mateusz Klich.

Promising young players on an upward trajectory (the likes of Riqui Puig, Thiago Almada and Dante Vanzeir) are the exception rather than the rule, with Federico Bernardeschi and Xherdan Shaqiri among a handful who could probably still contribute meaningfully at the top level of European football.

Obviously, Inter Miami’s newly signed former Barcelona trio of Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba add a sprinkling of gold dust to the US top-flight. But it pales in comparison to the Saudi league’s stars.

Ronaldo is the headline name (if not the most talented player). Perhaps more surprising than the Middle Eastern country’s rapid and sudden investment is the calibre of player they have been able to attract with their mountains of riyals.

Real Madrid’s starting striker Karim Benzema was poached on a free. Midfielder N’Golo Kante would have probably started for Chelsea next season. Jordan Henderson, set to join Al-Ettifaq, is 33 but is still the current Liverpool captain.

Ruben Neves (26) and Aleksandar Mitrovic (28) were arguably the best players at their Premier League clubs last season, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (28) and former Celtic winger Jota (24) both impressed and are far from being over the hill. 

Marcelo Brozovic (30) played the full Champions League final against Manchester City, who are on the verge of selling winger Riyad Mahrez – 15 goals in 47 appearances in all competitions last season as City won the Treble – to Al-Ahli. First round to Saudi.

Verdict: Saudi

The Saudi Pro League is attracting better players than the MLS, for example Karim Benzema

The Saudi Pro League is attracting better players than the MLS, for example Karim Benzema

Though the new Al-Ettifaq boss Steven Gerrard (right) is hardly a managerial heavyweight

Though the new Al-Ettifaq boss Steven Gerrard (right) is hardly a managerial heavyweight

Standard of football 

How sustainable this gargantuan recruitment drive is could be another matter. 

Though it appears unlikely Saudi will fall off a cliff edge like the similarly big-spending Chinese and Russian leagues, there is an element of risk.

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin fired a warning to the country over their plans to ‘promote the growth of football’, i.e. sportswash to distract from their numerous human rights abuses, widespread and increasing executions, persecution of gay people, lack of press freedom, sexism and discrimination against minorities, etc.

When Ceferin was asked if he was worried about the exodus to the Middle East, he said: ‘No, no, no. I think that it’s mainly a mistake for Saudi Arabian football. Why is that a problem for them? Because they should invest in academies, they should bring coaches, and they should develop their own players.

‘The system of buying the players that almost ended their career is not the system that develops football. It was a similar mistake in China when they all brought players who are at the end of their career. Tell me one player who is top, top age and who starts his career and went to play in Saudi Arabia?

His comment on the prospects of medium- to long-term progress is apt – it appears to be short-term thinking at the moment, and the footballing infrastructure is a long, long way from the top level.

In the US, you wouldn’t say it measures up to the best European clubs, but the facilities are in general more developed.

Similarly, though Saudi Arabia – the only nation to beat eventual World Cup winners Argentina in Qatar at the 2022 tournament – aren’t total no-hopers, the average level of non-DPs is higher than Ronaldo and Benzema’s future team-mates.

Verdict: MLS

But the general standard of football and infrastructure is better in America than in Saudi Arabia

But the general standard of football and infrastructure is better in America than in Saudi Arabia

The MLS All-Stars were thrashed 5-0 by Arsenal, but Al-Nassr were routed 5-0 by Celta Vigo

The MLS All-Stars were thrashed 5-0 by Arsenal, but Al-Nassr were routed 5-0 by Celta Vigo

The likes of the DRV PNK Stadium, home of Messi's Inter Miami, are nicer than Saudi grounds

The likes of the DRV PNK Stadium, home of Messi’s Inter Miami, are nicer than Saudi grounds

Lifestyle 

Admittedly, America is a huge country with vastly different micro-climates therein and no one homogeneous ‘weather’.

Yet it generally offers plenty of sunshine, without the oppressive heat of the Middle East.

There’s a fair bit more going on in terms of the social scene and nightlife, with alcohol allowed plus, of course, secondary concerns such as religious freedom and recognition of sexual orientation, etc.

The US certainly isn’t the worst place to play football or relocate your family – while things could be a little more restricted in Saudi. 

You might be able to park those concerns, though, if you’re given great big wads of cash every week. 

Verdict: MLS

Speaking of which… 

Messi, former Barca team-mates Busquets and Alba and others will be definitely be extremely well remunerated for their stints stateside.

Yet Saudi quite simply are offering far more.

It was announced earlier this summer that Messi would be joining the Florida-based team in a £45million-per-year deal.

Ronaldo, meanwhile, was one of the first big names to move to Saudi, joining Al-Nassr following his exit from Manchester United last season in a whopping £175million-per-year deal.

Though Inter Miami’s salary package makes Messi the fifth-highest earner in world football, he is the only MLS representative to make the top 10.

While four Saudi players are ranked on the list, with Brozovic, Henderson (assuming his move to Steven Gerrard’s Al-Ettifaq goes through), Ronaldo and Benzema also raking in the moolah.

That looks set to be the case for a while yet. 

Verdict: Saudi

American fans also generally turn up in greater numbers and create better atmospheres

American fans also generally turn up in greater numbers and create better atmospheres

TOP 10 EARNING PLAYERS

1. Karim Benzema (£1.6m per week, including commercial income)

2. Cristiano Ronaldo (£1.2m per week)

3. Kylian Mbappe (£900k per week)

4. Erling Haaland (~£900k per week) 

5. Lionel Messi (Up to £900k per week)

6. Neymar (£725k per week)

7. Jordan Henderson (£700k per week) – if he moves to Al-Ettifaq 

8. Marcelo Brozovic (£575k per week)

9. Kevin De Bruyne (£425k per week)

10. Casemiro (£375k per week)

*Salary figures are approximate and do not include commercial income unless otherwise specified

Fans 

British supporters have always sniggered at the bizarre simultaneous intensity and lack of intensity of American fans.

Admittedly, some clubs play in soulless arenas not exactly conducive to creating loud or intimidating atmospheres – as is very much the case in England too (Brighton and Manchester United, among others). 

The ‘fight and win’ Seattle Sounders ‘ultra’ is the epitome of that. 

But at least a decent number of clubs produce a raucous atmosphere, and in some cases many tens of thousands turn up in droves to watch.

While in Saudi, the sport is still getting on its feet, with crowds extremely low and in some cases the country incentivising people going to matches.

For us, it’s another point to MLS – and a 3-2 win across the five categories.

Messi triumphs over Ronaldo again. 

Verdict: MLS

Final scores: MLS 3-2 Saudi

MLS vs Saudi Pro League: Cristiano Ronaldo is earning the big bucks but Lionel Messi will be playing at a higher standard – so which ‘football retirement home’ comes out on top? 24hfootnews.

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