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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Karim Benzema joins Al-Ittihad, becoming latest Saudi sports prize

Karim Benzema, 35, announced after the season that he would leave Real Madrid, his club since 2009.

By Tariq Panja, Ahmed Al Omran and Andrew Das

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, 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 such as 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% 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 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.

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