Karim Benzema Joins Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ittihad

Karim Benzema, one of soccer’s best players and a fixture at the Spanish giant Real Madrid for more than a decade, has agreed to join the Saudi champion Al-Ittihad on a three-year contract that will make him the latest prize acquisition for a kingdom rapidly expanding its ambitions and influence in sports.

The decision by Benzema, a 35-year-old French striker, to move to Saudi Arabia was confirmed by Al-Ittihad on Tuesday after days of rumors. While it is an unusual choice for a player still perceived as an elite talent in one of Europe’s best leagues, his acquisition might not be the last high-profile signing by the Saudi league, which is embarking on a billion-dollar project, backed by the seemingly bottomless wealth of the state-controlled Public Investment Fund, to turn the kingdom into a major player in world soccer.

Benzema’s arrival will come only months after a different Saudi club lured another star, the Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo, with one of the richest contracts in soccer history.

Among the other marquee players said to have been targeted by the Saudi league is Lionel Messi, who led Argentina to the World Cup title in December in Qatar. The salaries offered to the players are some of the largest in sports history, according to interviews with agents, Saudi sports officials and consultants hired to execute the project. All spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations are private.

Saudi officials are hoping that the presence of stars like Ronaldo and Benzema will persuade dozens more successful players from Europe’s top leagues to follow them to the kingdom. The signings are part of an ambitious plan, supported at the highest levels of the Saudi state and bankrolled by the Public Investment Fund, to raise the profile of the Saudi league and the country’s status in global sports, and alter perceptions of Saudi Arabia on the world stage.

Similar in scale and ambition to a Saudi-financed campaign to dominate professional golf through the year-old LIV Golf series, the soccer effort is a centralized plan to turn a domestic league that has long been an afterthought into a destination for elite talent.

The signing of Benzema came days after Saudi Arabia passed ownership of the Saudi Premier League’s four biggest clubs to the PIF from the government by announcing the fund had taken a 75 percent ownership stake in each team: Al-Ittihad, the newly crowned Saudi champion; Al-Nassr, which employs Ronaldo; and Al-Ahli and Al-Hilal. They are among the biggest and best followed clubs in Saudi soccer.

Those four clubs are expected to be the primary beneficiaries of the PIF’s new focus on raising the league’s profile. But their common ownership by the fund is already raising questions about sporting integrity, since the rules of soccer’s global governing body, FIFA, and Asian soccer’s ruling confederation prohibit the same owner to control multiple clubs in the same competition. Saudi officials said this week that they have taken measures to ensure the PIF-owned teams comply with these regulations, but they offered no evidence that such safeguards were in place.

The state’s involvement in soccer comes on the heels of a surprisingly strong performance by Saudi Arabia’s national team at last year’s World Cup, where the team’s run included a stunning victory over Argentina. The project’s stated goal is to make the country’s top division, the Saudi Pro League, one of the world’s 10 best domestic leagues. The league is unlikely to become a true rival of more established leagues in Europe and elsewhere, but the resources of the PIF could destabilize the multibillion-dollar global market for players, and drive up the price of top talents around the world.

The plan to buy a foothold in world soccer is reminiscent of a similar one a decade ago in which China used high-profile and high-dollar acquisitions of players and European clubs. That plan, marred by broken contracts, economic implosions and the coronavirus pandemic, now appears to be in retreat.

The Saudi project, government officials have said, has broader aims than just a few dozen showcase signings. The government sees sports as a promising sector as it attempts to diversify the Saudi economy, and officials also have said raising the importance of sports would help tackle the problem of obesity in the country.

The Saudi plan will start on solid financial footing: The PIF already has signed 20-year commercial agreements worth tens of millions of dollars with the clubs it now controls, and it sponsors the league itself through one of the companies in its portfolio, the real estate developer Roshn.

The goal is for the four biggest teams to field three top foreign players each, and for another eight players to be distributed among the remaining 12 teams in the league, according to one of the people briefed on the plans to bring foreign stars to the league, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss them publicly.

Critics of Saudi Arabia have labeled its heavy spending in sports as an attempt to improve the kingdom’s image abroad and divert attention away from its human rights record; Saudi officials have repeatedly rejected these allegations.

It is unclear when Benzema will arrive in Jeddah, where Al-Ittihad is based, now that he has committed his future to a country that has a rich soccer history and where the sport is passionately followed.

One thing is certain, however: Whenever he does, Al-Ittihad fans, known as some of the most passionate in the country and riding high after winning their latest league title, will be ready to roll out the welcome mat.