Karim Benzema, one of the finest footballers and fixture at Spanish giants Real Madrid for more than a decade, has agreed to join Saudi champions Al-Ittihad on a three-year contract which will make him the kingdom’s latest prize acquisition. quickly expanded his ambition and influence in the sport.
Benzema’s decision, a 35-year-old French striker, to move to Saudi Arabia confirmed by Al-Ittihad on Tuesday after days of gossip. While it is an unusual choice for a player still considered an elite talent in one of Europe’s best leagues, the acquisition may not be the last high-profile signing by the Saudi league, which kicked off a multi-billion dollar project, backed by the seemingly bottomless wealth of the Fund. State-controlled Public Investment, to turn the empire into a major player in world football.
Benzema’s arrival will come just months after another Saudi club lured another star, Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo, to one of the richest contracts in football history.
Between other tent player said to have been targeted by the Saudi league is Lionel Messi, who steered Argentina to the World Cup title in December in Qatar. The salaries offered to the players are the highest in the history of the sport, according to interviews with agents, Saudi sports officials and consultants hired to carry out the project. All spoke on condition of anonymity because negotiations are private.
Saudi officials hope the presence of stars like Ronaldo and Benzema will persuade dozens of successful players from Europe’s top leagues to follow them to the kingdom. The signing is part of an ambitious plan, supported at the highest levels of the Saudi state and financed by the Public Investment Fund, to raise the profile of the Saudi league and the country’s status in global sport, and change the perception of Saudi Arabia in the world of sport. world stage.
Similar in scale and ambition to the Saudi-financed campaign to dominate professional golf through the year-old LIV Golf series, Football’s endeavor is a central plan to transform a long-time muse domestic league into a destination for elite talent.
Benzema’s signing comes a few days after Saudi Arabia passing ownership of the Saudi Premier League’s four biggest clubs to the government’s PIF by announcing the fund had taken a 75 percent stake in each: Al-Ittihad, the newly crowned Saudi champions; Al-Nassr, which employs Ronaldo; and Al-Ahli and Al-Hilal. They are one of the biggest and most followed clubs in Saudi football.
The four clubs are expected to be the main beneficiaries of PIF’s renewed focus on raising the league’s profile. But their joint ownership by the fund has raised questions about the integrity of the sport, as soccer’s world governing body FIFA and Asian football confederations prohibit the same owner from controlling multiple clubs in the same competition. Saudi officials said this week they had taken steps to ensure teams belonging to the PIF complied with these regulations, but they offered no evidence that such safeguards existed.
The state’s involvement in football comes after a surprisingly strong showing by the Saudi Arabian national team in last year’s World Cup, where the team included a stunning win over Argentina. The project’s stated aim is to make the country’s top division, the Saudi Pro League, one of the top 10 domestic leagues in the world. The league is unlikely to be a true rival to more established leagues in Europe and elsewhere, but PIF’s resources could shake up the multibillion-dollar global market for players, and drive up the prices of top talent around the world.
The plan to buy a foothold in world football is reminiscent of a similar one a decade ago in which China used the acquisition of high-profile and high-value European players and clubs. That plan, marred by broken contracts, an economic boom and the coronavirus pandemic, now appears to be backtracking.
The Saudi project, government officials say, has a broader purpose than just a few dozen exhibition signings. The government sees sport as a promising sector due to efforts to diversify the Saudi economy, and officials also say that increasing the importance of sport will help tackle the country’s obesity problem.
The Saudi plan will start off on a solid financial footing: PIF has signed a 20-year commercial agreement worth tens of millions of dollars with the club it now controls, and is sponsoring the league itself through one of the companies in its portfolio, which it actually is. plantation developer Roshn.
The aim is for the four biggest teams to field the top three foreign players each, and the other eight players will be distributed among the remaining 12 teams in the league, according to one of the people briefed on plans to bring foreign stars to the league. , who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about it publicly.
Critics of Saudi Arabia have labeled the heavy spending in sport an attempt to boost the kingdom’s image abroad and distract from its human rights record; Saudi officials have repeatedly denied the accusations.
It is unclear when Benzema will arrive in Jeddah, where Al-Ittihad is based, but now he has committed his future to a country which has a rich football history and where the sport is passionately followed.
However, one thing is certain: Whenever he does, fans of Al-Ittihad, who are known to be some of the most passionate in the country and are rising after winning their latest league title, will be ready to roll out the welcome mat.