Karim Benzema, one of the best soccer players and has played for Spanish giants Real Madrid for more than a decade, has agreed to join Saudi champions Al-Ittihad on a three-year contract that will make him the kingdom’s last takeover. She is rapidly expanding her ambitions and influence in sports.
It was the decision of Benzema, the 35-year-old French striker, to move to Saudi Arabia It was confirmed by the federation on Tuesday After days of rumours. While an unusual choice for a player still seen as an elite talent in one of Europe’s top leagues, his acquisition may not be the last high-profile signing by the Saudi league, which is embarking on a billion-dollar project, backed by wealth. The seemingly limitless state-controlled Public Investment Fund, to turn the kingdom into a major player in world football.
Benzema’s arrival will come just months after a different Saudi team lured another star, Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo, with one of the richest contracts in football history.
between the last marquee players The target of the Saudi league was said to be Lionel Messi, who led Argentina to the World Cup title in December in Qatar. The salaries offered to the players are among the largest in the history of the sport, according to interviews with agents, Saudi sports officials, and consultants hired to implement the project. All spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations were private.
Saudi officials hope that the presence of stars like Ronaldo and Benzema will convince dozens of successful players from major European leagues to follow them to the kingdom. The signatures are part of an ambitious plan, supported at the highest levels of the Saudi state and funded by the Public Investment Fund, to raise the status of the Saudi league and the country’s position in global sports, and change Saudi Arabia’s perceptions of the world stage.
Similar in scale and ambition to a Saudi-funded drive to dominate professional golf through the LIV Golf series a year ago, the soccer effort is a central plan to transform a domestic league that was long an afterthought into a destination for elite talent.
Benzema’s signing came days after Saudi Arabia Ownership passed One of the four biggest clubs in the Saudi Premier League prompted the Public Investment Fund from the government to announce that the fund had acquired a 75 percent ownership stake in each team: Al-Ittihad, the newly crowned Saudi champions; Victory that employs Ronaldo. And Al-Ahly and Al-Hilal. They are among the biggest and best-followed clubs in Saudi football.
These four clubs are expected to be the primary beneficiaries of the new Public Investment Fund’s focus on raising the league’s status. But co-ownership of the fund already raises questions about sporting integrity, because the rules of football’s world governing body, FIFA, and the Asian Football Confederation prohibit the same owner from taking control of several clubs in the same competition. Saudi officials said this week that they have taken measures to ensure PIF-owned teams comply with these regulations, but have provided no evidence that such guarantees exist.
The country’s participation in football comes in the wake of the surprisingly strong performance of the Saudi national team in the World Cup finals last year, where the team’s march included a stunning victory over Argentina. The project’s stated goal is to make the country’s top division, the Saudi Professional League, one of the top 10 domestic leagues in the world. The league is unlikely to become a true competitor to the more established leagues in Europe and elsewhere, but PIF resources could destabilize the multi-billion dollar global market for players, and drive up prices for top talent 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, high-dollar acquisitions of European players and clubs. That plan, marred by decades of corruption, economic collapse and the coronavirus pandemic, appears to be in retreat.
Government officials said the Saudi project has broader aims than just a few dozen signatures on offer. The government views sports as a promising sector in an effort to diversify the Saudi economy, and officials have also said that raising the importance of sports will help tackle the country’s obesity problem.
The Saudi plan will start on a strong financial footing: The Public Investment Fund has already signed 20-year commercial agreements worth tens of millions of dollars with the clubs it now controls, and is sponsoring the league itself through one of the companies in its portfolio, the real one. real estate developer Roshn.
The goal is for the top four teams to include three senior foreign players each, and eight more players to be distributed among the remaining 12 teams in the league, according to a person familiar with plans to bring foreign stars into the league. , who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly.
Critics of Saudi Arabia have described its massive spending on sports as an attempt to improve the kingdom’s image abroad and divert attention from its human rights record; Saudi officials have repeatedly rejected these allegations.
It is not clear when Benzema will arrive in Jeddah, where Al Ittihad is based, having dedicated his future to a country with a rich football history and where sport is followed with passion.
However, one thing is certain: whenever he does, Al-Ittihad fans, known as some of the country’s most ardent fans and riding high after winning their latest league title, will be ready to roll out the welcome rug.
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