A new Ballon d’Or arrives in Saudi Arabia. At 35, Karim Benzema signs for three seasons with Al-Ittihad and will meet again in the Gulf country with his former Real Madrid teammate, the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo and perhaps awaiting the arrival of Lionel Messi.
“Benzema has signed a contract for his transfer to Al Ittihad for a period of three years, starting next season,” an internal source at the club based in Jeddah, on the shores of the Red Sea (west), told AFP on Tuesday. ).
This arrival in style, for an undisclosed but pharaonic amount, is part of the great Saudi offensive to attract European soccer stars.
With the exception perhaps of Luka Modric (2018), all the Ballon d’Ors since 2008 could end up in the Saudi championship.
The Croatian is also on the list of veteran stars wanted by the monarchy, such as Lionel Messi, who officially left Paris SG last Saturday.
After 14 years of conquests at Real Madrid, a team in which he won five Champions Leagues, the former French international (97 appearances with Les Bleus, 37 goals) chooses to end his career in the wealthy Saudi Pro League supported by the Sovereign Fund Arabia (PFI), which bets in particular on “soft power”, geopolitical influence through sport.
“It’s a bit of a sad day because I’m going to leave this club,” said Benzema, at an official farewell ceremony at the Real Madrid sports complex, before adding that “it hurts because I had a dream in my head, to sign for the Real Madrid and I wanted to end up at Madrid, but in life sometimes there is another opportunity.”
The Spanish press reported in recent days on a contract for 200 million euros (214 million dollars). The Frenchman finally signs for three years.
Negotiations recently accelerated, with Benzema himself declaring last Thursday, in the final stretch of his contract with the white club: “I am in Madrid, those who speak are on the internet. Reality is not the internet”, during a ceremony Tribute to his career organized by the Spanish sports newspaper MARCA.
But, in Saudi Arabia, the state television channel Al-Ekhbariya assured for its part that Al-Ittihad had reached an “official” agreement for a “record” contract.
The second best scorer in the history of Real Madrid, with 354 goals, behind CR7 (450 goals), and the fifth player with the most games played with 648, left the Spanish club like a prince, acclaimed by the Santiago Bernabéu stadium, his teammates, his coach and his leaders.
“Not one more player is leaving, one of the most incredible footballers in our history is leaving,” said the president of Real Madrid, Florentino Pérez, on Tuesday, assuring Benzema that “you have earned the right to decide.”
The “Nine” will continue its adventure in the recently crowned champion of Saudi Arabia. The yellow and black “Tigers” of Jeddah are, in addition to the senior team, founded in 1927, the second most successful team in the country, nine times champion (like Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr) and winner of two Champions Leagues in Asia, something Al-Nassr has never achieved.
The match between Al-Ittihad (“Union”) and Al-Hilal from Riyadh, the club that is trying to sign Messi, is the “classic” of the local championship.
Like Ronaldo at Al-Nassr, Benzema will be the star of a squad with international players such as Egypt’s Ahmed Egazy and Angola’s Helder Costa, and coached by former Porto and Tottenham manager Nuno Espirito Santo of Portugal.
But other prestigious partners could still arrive because the kingdom of the Arabian peninsula, criticized for violating human rights, is determined to use soccer to improve its international image, and has abundant ‘petrodollars’ to satisfy its ambition.