Former Real Madrid team-mates Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema were reunited in the tunnel shortly before kick-off at the Prince Abdullah Al Faisal Stadium on December 26. The pair were all smiles as they exchanged pleasantries.
Ronaldo was still smiling 90 minutes later after converting two penalties in a 5-2 win for Al-Nassr. Benzema, though, was the picture of frustration as he left the field and, not longer after, deleted his social media accounts.
He knew what was coming: another barrage of abuse. Because while Ronaldo has been the best player in the Saudi Pro League this season, Benzema has been its biggest disappointment. Reigning champions Al-Ittihad have somehow managed to get worse with the French forward up front, and speculation over his future has only intensified after he reportedly failed to report back for training after the Saudi Pro League’s winter break.
Indeed, while Ronaldo was posting a picture of himself in Riyadh on January 16 saying he was “back for more”, many were wondering where Benzema was – and whether he would even return to Jeddah.
‘Karim is a professional…’
On January 13, Marca claimed that Benzema had gone AWOL at Al-Ittihad. According to the report in the Spanish sports daily, the 36-year-old was meant to return to training with his team-mates the previous day, but never showed, resulting in him being dropped from a scheduled mid-season tour of Dubai by coach Marcelo Gallardo.
It was also alleged Benzema had already missed three training sessions without permission during the first half of what has been a wretched campaign so far for Al-Ittihad – and the striker in particular.
This episode unfolded less than two weeks after Spanish media had claimed that Benzema had, unbeknownst to his Saudi employers, absconded to Madrid. However, this story was promptly rubbished by Al-Ittihad, claiming “Karim Benzema went to Madrid for personal reasons, he asked for three days’ leave, which the club granted him. Karim is a professional and is attached to the team.”
Disastrous deal to date
Of course, only Benzema himself knows if he is really unhappy in Saudi Arabia and, until now, he’s stayed silent – much like everyone connected with the club, including president Anmar Al Haily, who is usually incredibly friendly and forthcoming.
As a result of the media silence, the rumour mill has gone into overdrive. There have been stories of Benzema being stranded in Mauritius because of Storm Belal, reports that his partner is unsettled in Saudi Arabia, and talk of him joining the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal on loan.
A transfer appears unlikely at this stage, but what is clear is that Benzema’s move to Al-Ittihad has been a disaster to date.
‘Most impactful transfer’ in Al-Ittihad’s history
His signing was quite understandably hailed as a major coup for Saudi Arabia and its Public Investment Fund (PIF), which took control of not only Al-Ittihad last summer, but also Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli. Benzema, after all, was still the Ballon d’Or holder when he sensationally decided to turn down Real Madrid’s offer of a contract extension to move to the Middle East. Ronaldo’s arrival may have been the catalyst, but Benzema provided the confirmation that the SPL was now a major player in the transfer market.
Al-Ittihad also thought they had struck gold, with president Al Haily hailing the Benzema deal as “the most impactful transfer in the club’s history” – and that may well be the case from a commercial perspective.
On a sporting level, though, Benzema has been a disaster, with his presence undeniably – and almost immediately – destabilising a squad that lost just two games last season in beating Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr to the title by five points.
Nuno-Benzema row ‘bullsh*t’….
Last season’s top scorer, Abderrazak Hamdallah, felt as if he had been replaced without warning and looked to leave, with the Moroccan only convinced to stay days before the start of the season.
By that stage, there were already rumours that title-winning coach Nuno Espirito Santo had been against signing Benzema, whom he reportedly deemed incompatible with his tactical game plan – and there’s no denying that the former Wolves boss struggled with trying to accommodate two strikers with very strong characters.
Nuno angrily dismissed talk of a falling-out with Benzema as “bullsh*t” and insisted that there had been no clash over the captain’s armband – yet nobody was the slightest bit surprised to see the Portuguese sacked on November 7 amid further claims of a major personality clash with his No.9.
‘Son of defeat’
The hope was that the appointment of the highly-rated Gallardo would herald a change in fortunes – for both Al-Ittihad and Benzema – but the former River Plate boss has managed to win just one league game so far, and lost his last three before the winter break.
Consequently, many of the club’s frustrated fans – some of whom have started referring to Benzema as ‘Ben-Hazima’, meaning ‘son of defeat’ – are now wondering whether the biggest signing in the club’s history might be the cause of the team’s current struggles, rather than the coach.
Benzema has managed just nine SPL goals so far this season (Ronaldo has 20), missed a crucial penalty in the humiliating Club World Cup loss to Al Ahly on home soil, gave a spot-kick away in the devastating defeat by Al-Nassr, and cost his side two points with an own goal against Al-Taawoun.
Stark contrast with Cristiano
Of far greater significance, though, is the fact that Benzema has been repeatedly criticised for a perceived lack of effort on the field – which is staggering when one considers that he is being paid an estimated €100 million (£86m/$108m) per annum.
As Saudi journalist Waleed Al Farraj recently said, “The rift between Karim and the public grows day by day. He has never made a difference, he plays with arrogance, almost as if to say ‘I’m doing you a favour by being here.’
“When Cristiano Ronaldo arrived last January, he immediately demonstrated professionalism and commitment. Benzema didn’t. It’s as if his team-mates can’t stand him and he himself looks ill at ease.”
The contrast with Ronaldo is certainly stark. The Portuguese is still smiling a year on from his arrival in Saudi Arabia, but Benzema’s has disappeared – just like the man himself.