Sat on the last row of seats on the team bus, Karim Benzema’s smile carried a mix of awkwardness and shyness as he clapped to the tone of his new teammates serenading his name “Yaa Karim.. Ya Karim”. Six weeks after the reigning Ballon d’Or winner was unveiled as a new Al Ittihad player, the first signing of a historic summer transfer window in the Roshn Saudi League, Benzema was making his first away trip with the team as they travelled to play in the King Salman Cup, the pan-Arab summer club competition taking place in the mountainous tri-cities of Taif, Abha and Al Baha.
Fast forward three months, the new Al Ittihad captain arrives to speak to us, looking much more assured, comfortable in his new surroundings and as confident as a man who stamped his mark on the biggest stages of European football over the course of two decades in the white shirts of Olympique Lyon and Real Madrid.
Golden-framed glasses hanging from the front of his crew neck yellow shirt, brown Louis Vuitton pouch tucked under his right arm and a certain swagger to his demeanor reminiscent of the sight of him effortlessly gliding past defenders at the Santiago Bernabeu, Benzema reflects on his decision to swap Spain for Saudi Arabia after 14 years.
“With everything I have achieved with Real Madrid, it was the right time for me to try a new challenge,” says the 35-year-old. He has indeed achieved a lot; a tally of 24 trophies, including five UEFA Champions League titles and a plethora of individual awards and records, culminating in the 2022 Ballon d’Or before he departed Madrid as the club’s second highest goal scorer of all time.
“For a very long time, even before football, I always wanted to come here. Then the football project came in, it was a project just starting to burst in from everywhere, so on my side I really wanted to be part of the story. I really wanted to help Saudi football grow.
Born in Lyon to parents of Algerian heritage, Benzema is a practicing Muslim, a factor that had an influence on his decision to move to Saudi Arabia.
“When you travel there [to Mecca], you’re in the truth; in the truth for a Muslim. You feel good and pure. It’s simply exceptional. It’s something I wish all Muslims get to experience one day. It does a lot of good.
“[Saudi Arabia] is also a Muslim country, and they welcomed me with their arms wide open.
“On and off the pitch, I feel good. I’ll say it again, but it’s just how I feel; this country welcomed me with open arms. I feel the love of the people here, so that makes me happy, and I try to return that love on the pitch.
In joining Al Ittihad, Benzema signed for a club steeped in history and tradition, having been founded in 1927, the Jeddah-based club commands huge support across the country. Whenever the team lines up before Roshn Saudi League matches for a rendition of their anthem “The Nation’s Club”, the stands are rocking, a sea of black and yellow driving the players to fight for the number-one shaped badge.
Despite a narrow 1-0 defeat to Al Ahli at the start of October, a strike from former Barcelona midfielder Franck Kessie, Benzema experienced the passion of Al Ittihad at its finest in his first Jeddah derby.
“There is a lot of passion, a lot of history behind that. There are the fans and everything that goes with it. I was really pleasantly surprised about the level of the game here. Surprised because in Europe we don’t watch much Saudi football. Nowadays, we are watching more and more because of the big names they signed.
Following Benzema’s signing at the start of June, the reigning Roshn Saudi League champions bolstered their squad with heavyweight additions in the shape of N’Golo Kante, Fabinho and Luiz Felipe while the core of players who led them to title success in 2022-23, including Romarinho, Igor Coronado and goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe were retained.
Under coach Nuno Espirito Santo, Al Ittihad their campaign in stunning form, winning six of their first seven matches, and keeping six clean sheets. Their first defeat of the season came in a thrilling 4-3 encounter against Al Hilal in the game dubbed ‘The Saudi Clasico’, owing to the historic rivalry between the two most successful clubs in the Kingdom’s history, and its only two continental champions.
In the Clasico, Benzema scored his side’s second with an exquisite backheel finish through the legs of Moroccan goalkeeper Yassine Bounou as Al Ittihad led 3-1 at the break, but an Aleksandar Mitrovic hat-trick and a 71st minute winner from Saudi Arabia ace Salem Al Dawsari completed a 4-3 comeback for Al Hilal. Benzema, however, remains optimistic about his side’s title defence.
“We had a good start to the season. The team hasn’t really changed from last year, which is good,” he opines.
“There have only been reinforcements. We have got a good squad and are working well together with the desire to win.
“I’m feeling good, getting better and better. I had a little injury, but now I’m training 100% and I’m going to step up my game. In the most recent matches, I felt good; I played and helped my team. Little by little, the team’s level is rising and so is my level, but the most important thing for me is to win trophies at the end of the season.”