Al Nassr's Cristiano Ronaldo controls the ball during a friendly...

Al Nassr's Cristiano Ronaldo controls the ball during a friendly soccer match against Paris Saint-Germain in Osaka, western Japan, on July 25, 2023. Ronaldo walked off the field with the gleeful chants of “Messi, Messi, Messi!” ringing in his ears from delighted Al-Hilal fans who had just watched their Saudi Pro League team beat the Portugal superstar's Al-Nassr 3-0 in the Riyadh Derby on Friday. Credit: AP

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Cristiano Ronaldo walked off the field with the gleeful chants of “Messi! Messi!” ringing in his ears from delighted Al-Hilal fans who had just watched their Saudi Pro League team beat the Portugal superstar's Al-Nassr 3-0 in the Riyadh Derby on Friday.

The five-time Ballon d’Or winner may have finished on the losing team — Aleksandar Mitrovic scored twice after fellow Serbian Sergej Milinkovic-Savic opened Al-Hilal — but Ronaldo still remains the focus of attention in Saudi Arabian soccer despite the taunts of opposition fans referencing his great rival of nearly two decades.

As thousands of cars headed east out of downtown Riyadh to watch the top two league teams and bitter local rivals face off at the King Fahd International Stadium — the last to be played at the arena for three years as it is to be renovated to host games at the 2027 Asian Cup and anticipated 2034 World Cup — one Al-Nassr fan leaned out and shouted: “Are you here to see Cristiano?”

When Ronaldo warmed up, there were cheers from the several thousand away fans, many of whom had No. 7 on their backs, and jeers from the masses of home supporters. But even in those hostile sections, parents pointed out the 38-year-old soccer great to sons and daughters.

Saudi soccer has not been the same since the former Real Madrid and Manchester United forward completed a move last December. Even fans of Al-Hilal, the most successful club in Saudi Arabia and Asia, with 18 and four championships respectively, acknowledge what he has done at Al-Nassr which has nine domestic titles.

“He has lifted the level of the whole of football here,” Riyadh resident Fahad Al-Qahtani, 25, told The Associated Press. “Al-Hilal will still be champion this season and we are still the biggest in Asia but Ronaldo has been amazing.”

In the previous 14 games of the league season, Ronaldo had netted 15 goals to top the scoring charts and help Al-Nassr move into second in the league behind Al-Hilal. His teammates now include former Liverpool star Sadio Mane, Marcelo Brozovic from Inter Milan and Alex Telles, who arrived from Manchester United.

“Cristiano is an example for everyone, an example that Al-Nassr are lucky to have,” Al-Nassr coach Luis Castro said. “He is an example of rigor, ambition and discipline. Lots of people want to be like Cristiano Ronaldo but few want to work like Cristiano Ronaldo. If you want something you have to give everything to get it.”

Ronaldo tried everything on Friday. In the second half with Al-Nassr trailing by a solitary goal, he shot a fierce volley high into the net but it was marginally ruled out for offside. Soon after he rolled around the floor of the Al-Hilal penalty area claiming that he had been elbowed. When Mitrovic scored his first and Al-Hilal’s second late in the game, Ronaldo insisted that he had been fouled in the buildup.

Hilal has its own superstar but a less influential one right now as Neymar, who signed from Paris Saint-Germain in August, suffered a serious injury while on international duty with Brazil in October.

On social media, Neymar posted good luck messages to his teammates, such as Mitrovic, midfielder Ruben Neves and defender Kalidou Koulibaly who all arrived in the summer as highly rated English Premier League players. They joined several Saudi Arabian internationals in the team such as Salem Al-Dawsari and Saleh Al-Shehri, who scored against Lionel Messi's Argentina in Saudi Arabia’s famous 2-1 win at the 2022 World Cup.

The derby defeat on Friday left Al-Nassr seven points behind leader Al-Hilal after 15 rounds. Ronaldo may have his work cut out to help his team win title No. 10 but, given his form so far this season, he may still have the last laugh with the Messi chants fading away.

Ronaldo's day was further soured with news from the U.S. that he has been hit with a class-action lawsuit seeking at least $1 billion in damages for his role in promoting cryptocurrency-related “non-fungible tokens,” or NFTs, issued by the beleaguered cryptocurrency exchange Binance.

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