MLS vs Saudi Pro League: Cristiano Ronaldo earns the big money, but Lionel Messi will play at a higher standard

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

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

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

Saudi Arabia’s Pro League and America’s MLS are widely seen as the home of ex-geriatricians looking to earn one last big payday – although that reputation may no longer hold true – but is Ronaldo right? Is Saudi surpassing the states?

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

Cristiano Ronaldo insists the Saudi league is better than MLS, where Lionel Messi plays
The Portuguese’s long-time rival Messi, 36, was unveiled as an Inter Miami player last weekend
And below, Mail Sport assesses which ‘football retirement home’ comes out on top


The Major League is largely still reserved for football players, you can kindly call ‘experienced’ and unkindly call ‘past their sell-by date’. The vast majority of designated players (DPs – star players whose salary does not count against the salary cap) are often forwards and typically fall into two categories.

Veterans from European football such as Christian Benteke (32), Lorenzo Insigne (32), Javier Hernandez (35) and Douglas Costa (32), or players who are not quite at Premier League level, e.g. Ravel Morrison, Victor Wanyama, Teemu Pukki and Mateusz Klich.

Promising young players on the rise (such as 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 still contribute meaningfully at the top level of European football.

Clearly, Inter Miami’s recently signed ex-Barcelona trio of Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba are adding a sprinkle of gold dust to the American top flight. But that pales in comparison to the stars of the Saudi league.

Ronaldo is the headline (if not the most talented player). Perhaps more surprising than the Middle Eastern country’s quick and sudden investment is the caliber of players 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 likely have started for Chelsea next season. Jordan Henderson, who is set to join Al-Ettifaq, is 33 but is still Liverpool’s current 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 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 attracts better players than MLS, for example Karim Benzema
Although new Al-Ettifaq boss Steven Gerrard (right) is hardly a managerial heavyweight

Standard for football

How sustainable this gigantic recruiting effort is could be another matter.

While it seems unlikely that Saudi will fall off a cliff like the similarly big spenders in the Chinese and Russian leagues, there is an element of risk.

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

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

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

His comment about the prospects for progress in the medium to long term is apt – it seems to be short term thinking at the moment and the football infrastructure is far, far from the top level.

In the US, you wouldn’t say it’s on par with the best European clubs, but the facilities are generally more developed.

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

Verdict: MLS

But the general standard of football and infrastructure is better in America than in Saudi Arabia
The MLS All-Stars were beaten 5-0 by Arsenal, but Al-Nassr were routed 5-0 by Celta Vigo
People like DRV PNK Stadium, home of Messi’s Inter Miami, are nicer than Saudi grounds


America is admittedly a huge country with vastly different microclimates in it and no homogenous ‘weather’.

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

There is quite a 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 is certainly not the worst place to play soccer or move your family – while things could be a bit more restricted in Saudi.

However, you may be able to park these worries if you get large amounts of cash each week.

Verdict: MLS

Speaking of which…

Messi, former Barca teammates Busquets and Alba and others are sure to be handsomely remunerated for their stay stateside.

Yet Saudi simply offers far more.

It was announced earlier this summer that Messi would join the Florida-based side in a £45million-a-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-a-year deal.

Although Inter Miami’s salary package makes Messi the fifth-highest earner in world soccer, 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 are also raking in the moolah.

That seems to be the case for a while yet.

Verdict: Saudi

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


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

2. Cristiano Ronaldo (£1.2m per week)

3. Kylian Mbappe (£900,000 per week)

4. Erling Haaland (~£900,000 per week)

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

6. Neymar (£725,000 per week)

7. Jordan Henderson (£700,000 per week) – if he moves to Al-Ettifaq

8. Marcelo Brozovic (£575,000 per week)

9. Kevin De Bruyne (£425,000 a week)

10. Casemiro (£375,000 per week)

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


British supporters have always giggled at American fans’ bizarre simultaneous intensity and lack of intensity.

Admittedly, some clubs play in soulless arenas that are not exactly conducive to creating loud or intimidating atmospheres – as is largely also the case in England (eg Brighton and Manchester United).

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

But at least a fair 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 emerging, with extremely low audiences and in some cases the country encourages people to go to matches.

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

Messi wins over Ronaldo again.

Verdict: MLS

Final results: MLS 3-2 Saudi

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