Karim Benzema’s Saudi Arabian dream has quickly turned into a nightmare.
Karim Benzema announced his departure from Real Madrid last summer, with that news quickly followed up with the official confirmation that he would be the latest superstar to follow in Cristiano Ronaldo’s footsteps by moving to the Saudi Pro League.
Al-Ittihad, reigning SPL champions, would be the 36-year-old’s destination and the reported value of the contract was scarcely believable.
Benzema would earn some £354 million for a two-year stay at Al-Ittihad, one of the largest sports contracts ever agreed. It also included the option for the club to extend his terms by a further year to 2026.
The signing ceremony was spectacular, attended by tens of thousands of Al-Ittihad fans inside the King Abdullah Sports City stadium in Jeddah.
Saudi reality failing to match expectations
But from the get-go, all was not well between Benzema and his new employers despite a goal on debut.
News quickly spread of a series of disagreements between the new star and his manager, Nuno Espirito Santo. It was reported that the Portuguese did not want Benzema at the club in the first place and told the club’s hierarchy that he did not see the Frenchman fitting into his plans.
There was also controversy over the captain’s armband, an honour which Nuno reportedly did not want to give to the new striker who had requested it.
Although Nuno tried to dismiss the reports of a rift between the pair as “bullshit”, those rumours refused to subside.
Battle lines were drawn.
The dispute culminated after a five-game winless streak in the Saudi top flight and things got even worse following the 2-0 loss to Iraq’s Air Force Sports Club in the AFC Champions League in early November.
Reports surfaced that Nuno and Benzema confronted each other in a furious post-match dressing room showdown, in which the manager accused his star man of not pulling his weight and failing to be an example to his less illustrious team-mates.
That was one bad result too far for Nuno, who was dismissed from his post, despite leading the side to the Saudi title only months before.
His replacement would be the highly-regarded Marcelo Gallardo, a serial winner in Argentina and South America with River Plate.
However, Benzema’s relationship with Gallardo looks hardly any better than it was with Nuno.
Al-Ittihad went into the winter break on a three-match winless run in the league and, in between those setbacks, they also crashed out of the Club World Cup on home soil.
Benzema bore the brunt of the criticism for his performance in the quarter-final loss to Al-Ahly of Cairo in which he missed a penalty. He scored the consolation goal in a 3-1 loss but the damage was by that stage done. It meant humiliation for the SPL on the world stage at a time of intense scrutiny.
The final SPL game of 2023 was the highly-anticipated Galactico showdown between Benzema and Ronaldo. Al-Nassr won in convincing fashion, 2-5 away from home, and in the aftermath, the criticism of Benzema ramped up.
He suffered dog’s abuse across social media, leading to the former Real Madrid star to delete his Instagram account.
Benzema then jetted off on his winter holiday, to the luxury island destination of Mauritius, and that’s where the story takes a farcical turn.
Citing a cyclone, Benzema claimed that he was unable to leave Mauritius, and he ended up reporting back for duty with his club a mammoth 17 days late, being expected back in Saudi Arabia on January 2.
At the time, The Tigers claimed that they spent a forlorn 10 days chasing contact with the man they pay around £3.4m every week to employ to no avail. In all, Benzema was away from his teammates for more than 40 days.
During that time there were reports in the French press that Benzema was looking for “short-term solutions” amid the news that relationships around the Jeddah club were deteriorating.
Lyon were also keen to bring Benzema home but no deal could be done there either given the finances involved.
There were even reports that Al-Ittihad would look to find another Saudi club to take him on loan for the rest of the season but nothing materialised in that realm. Indeed French reports suggested that the player would reject any attempt to move him on.
There were then reports that Benzema refused to apologise for his late return upon encountering his manager. And then followed the news that the former Lyon man would not be joining Al-Ittihad on their mid-season training camp in Dubai. Instead, he was given an individual programme which he was to follow alone.
He finally rejoined his team-mates on Monday February 5, being present for the first part of the team’s training session, before Gallardo requested he leave in order to follow more individual exercises.
Benzema, it is alleged, refused to do so and ended up storming out of the training ground. He was back the following day, however, training with those players who were recovering from injury.
Al-Ittihad by that stage were busy preparing for their SPL comeback match, where they were attempting to get back on the winning trail. Benzema would be nowhere to be seen.
Having defeated Al-Faisaly 4-0 in the King’s Cup quarter-finals the previous weekend, things were beginning to look up for Al-Ittihad, albeit without Benzema in the ranks.
“He must work more, as he joined the team two days ago, and if the player is in full physical and technical condition, we will see him in the team… and the decision to exclude him is purely technical,” Gallardo told reporters of Benzema’s absence for the league match against Al-Tai, which Al-Ittihad won 3-0.
It’s been a good turnaround for the club, who are nonetheless fifth in the league and 22 points off the pace set by Al-Hilal on top. They have played twice since the winter break ended, winning twice, scoring seven and conceding none.
Benzema, for his part, has been no shrinking violet. He has again returned to Instagram with a cleaned-up account. Where previously there were over 2000 posts under his name, there are now only seven.
Moreover, the only football-related post he’s left up is a photograph of him holding the Ballon d’Or.
He was also following 137 accounts previously and now only seven; Real Madrid, GQ Middle East, adidas football, Bugatti, Al-Ittihad, Donatella Versace and Jean-Paul Gaultier.
He has given an interview to GQ Middle East, in which he reiterates his commitment to the Saudi project.
“I am happy to be in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “My presence here represents a new challenge, and I love this challenge.”
“The football sports project in Saudi Arabia is long term. I am not only a football player in the Kingdom, but also an ambassador.
“I am here to bring great European players in the near future, even if there are already great players in the Saudi League.”
However, with Benzema not exactly portraying the reality of life in Saudi Arabia as all it was cracked up to be, despite the dizzying riches, it remains to be seen if any of these great European players will be tempted to follow suit.