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.