Saudi excitement about the possibility of soccer superstar Lionel Messi joining the country’s Pro League grew on Thursday after it was announced that he would visit the kingdom for the third time in less than a year later this month.
The Argentine, who completed a glittering career resume by winning the World Cup in Qatar last year, will visit for a vacation, according to Saudi Tourism Minister Ahmed Al-Khatib.
“I am happy to welcome our Tourism Ambassador… and his family and friends this month… to enjoy our most beautiful tourism destinations, connect with our people and enjoy unique experiences!” Al-Khatib said on Twitter.
The news came hours before the exit of Messi’s French club Paris St Germain from the European Champions League on Wednesday.
The oil-rich nation appointed Messi its tourism ambassador last year, and he visited Jeddah in May, before returning in January to play a friendly match with PSG against a team of Saudi League stars, when he faced great rival Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ronaldo’s deal with Saudi club Al-Nasr sealed last year — widely reported to be worth more than 200 million euros over 2 1/2 years — led to rumours of a renewed rivalry with Messi in the Saudi League, after local media reported Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad’s interest in signing the world champion.
The Saudi Sport website reported on Wednesday that Al-Hilal had already made him a “huge offer” to join once his contract with PSG ends in June.
Al-Ittihad fans chanted Messi’s name in a local match on Friday, and club president Anmar Al-Haeli referred to a Messi deal in a video last week, saying “God willing. The deal needs time and arrangement.”
Ramon Diaz, coach of Al-Hilal, told reporters last month: “The presence of Ronaldo makes us believe that Messi may come to Saudi Arabia as well. Saudi football is growing significantly and seems capable of attracting the biggest players.”