Karim Benzema bound for Saudi Arabia as kingdom makes superstar swoops

Real Madrid striker to join Cristiano Ronaldo in next season's Pro League with other stars also pondering move to Middle East

Karim Benzema lifts the Uefa Super Cup after Real Madrid defeated Eintracht Frankfurt at Helsinki Olympic Stadium on August 10, 2022. Getty
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In Riyadh, just after the turn of the year, colleagues of Karim Benzema detected he felt at a crossroads in his career. Real Madrid, the club he has captained for the last two seasons, were in the city for the Spanish Super Cup.

Benzema had not played much football in the preceding two months, having missed the entire World Cup, left out by France because of an injury he had insisted was responding favourably to treatment.

He scored all Madrid’s goals from open play in the Spanish Super Cup tournament, a semi-final drawn 1-1 and won on penalties against Valencia and a 3-1 defeat to Barcelona in the final.

He appreciated the special reception given to him, the holder of the Ballon d’Or, by the 50,000-plus crowd at the King Fahd Stadium. “I can’t say for sure how much time I have left but I want to enjoy it,” he said in a reflective moment during the trip.

Benzema called time on his 14-year stint at Madrid at the weekend, scored the last of his 354 goals for them on Sunday and was waved off with appropriate reverence.

“I am conscious of having managed one of the greatest players in the world, the greatest of strikers,” said Carlo Ancelotti, the Madrid manager under whom Benzema won the first and last of his five Champions League titles.

“A complete player, a generous person, humble and serious. We thank him for everything he has been able to do at this club, legendary, unforgettable things.”

Another ovation awaits at Al Ittihad, the Saudi Arabian champions whose lucrative offer has persuaded Benzema, 35, to make Jeddah his new home, accelerating his departure from Spain, where he had been expected to spend at least one more year. “It surprised us all,” said Ancelotti, “but we have to respect it. He has thought hard about it.”

The growing global profile and status of the Pro League is a motivating factor. The footballer with whom Benzema enjoyed the most productive attacking partnership of all during his storied Madrid career, Cristiano Ronaldo, is at Al Nassr and speaking up for the high standards of the league.

In February, Benzema had a close-up experience of how competitive Al Hilal, the country’s most decorated club, are. His penultimate trophy with Madrid, the Club World Cup, was won in February in a final where the Saudi opposition kept fighting back, Madrid winning 5-3. Al Hilal had eliminated South American champions Flamengo in the last four.

With Ronaldo in Riyadh and Benzema in Jeddah, five of the last nine Ballon d’Or trophies would be stored in Saudi Arabia. Should Lionel Messi, the subject of a bold and immensely high-paying proposal from Al Hilal, decide to move there now he has said goodbye to Paris Saint-Germain, then three of the select quartet of players who have won the game’s most prestigious individual award in the last 15 years would be in the Pro League.

Luka Modric, the 2018 Ballon d’Or winner, looks inclined to remain a Madrid player beyond his 38th birthday in September, although he has also been linked with a move to the kingdom. But having said his farewells to Sergio Ramos, Rafa Varane, Casemiro and now Benzema in the space of three summers, he can sympathise with Ancelotti’s describing “a process of transition,” at Madrid.

Replacing Benzema will be a tall order. When Ronaldo left Madrid in 2018, Benzema stepped up, adapting a game plan that had been shaped to complement Ronaldo into one where he upped his own goalscoring and after some initial frustrations, benefited from – and assisted in – the development of Vinicius Junior as a productive partner.

Vinicius and Rodrygo will continue to give zest to Madrid’s forward line, but as Ancelotti considered all the attacking players – along with Benzema, Marco Asensio, Mariano and the disastrous investment that is Eden Hazard are leaving this summer – packing their bags he stressed: “We need to get to work on the forward line. There’s time.”

Harry Kane, who has a year left on his Tottenham Hotspur contract and no Champions League football next season at Spurs, has long been admired by Madrid, but the prospect of a long attritional negotiation with the London club, should the England captain push for a move, is one Bernabeu executives dread.

They found Tottenham exasperating to deal with when Modric and Gareth Bale joined from Spurs in 2012 and 2013, and the same key business personnel are still at both clubs.

Kai Havertz, of Chelsea, is among possible targets, younger – he turns 24 next week – than Benzema or Kane, 29, and if not as accomplished a leader of the forward line, he has been encouraged at Chelsea to think of himself as a central striker. What Chelsea cannot offer Havertz is any European football next season if he stays in London, the club having finished in the bottom half of the Premier League.

Updated: June 06, 2023, 6:50 AM