Benzema on Real exit: Always eyed Saudi move

Karim Benzema joined Al Ittihad this summer because he always wanted to live in Saudi Arabia and “help Saudi football grow.”

The France forward, who won the Ballon d’Or in 2022, left Real Madrid after 14 years “to try a new challenge,” signing for Al Ittihad in June with the Saudi Pro League champions as a free agent.

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“Well with everything I’ve made and gained with Real Madrid, I think it was for me the good moment to try a new challenge,” 2022 Ballon d’Or winner Benzema told the Saudi Pro League website . “For a really long time even before football, I always wanted to come here. Also, it’s a Muslim country. Straight away I felt this love for me. On and off the pitch I feel good.

“This country welcomed me with open arms. I feel the love of the people here so obviously that makes me happy.”

Benzema, 35, signed a three-year contract with Al-Ittihad and has big aims.

“I really want to help Saudi football grow,” he added. “It [Al Ittihad] was a project that was just starting to burst from everywhere so from my side I wanted to be part of the story. That’s the reason why I came here.”

Since Cristiano Ronaldo moved Al Nassr in December 2022 after leaving Manchester United, a lot of football stars have moved to the Middle East.

Among those that moved to the Saudi Pro League this summer are Neymar, Kalidou Koulibaly, Édouard Mendy, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané and Marcelo Brozovic .

“I’m really surprised and pleased about the level of the game here,” Benzema said. “Really surprised because in Europe we don’t watch much football from here. Nowadays we are watching more and more because of the big names they signed.”

In addition to Benzema, Al-Ittihad, coached by Nuno Espirito Santo, strengthened their squad with former Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kanté and ex-Celtic forward Jota.

“The team hasn’t really changed from last year which is good,” Benzema said. “There have only been a few reinforcements. We’ve got a good squad, and we are working well together.”

Al-Ittihad are fourth in the league, four points adrift of leaders Al Hilal after nine games.

Benzema, who has scored three goals and set up three more in seven league appearances so far this season, said his best is yet to come.

“I’m feeling good, getting better and better.” he said. “I’m going to step up my game. Little by little the team’s level is rising and so is mine. But the most important thing for me will be to win trophies at the end of the season.”

Benzema is Madrid’s second-highest goal scorer of all time behind Cristiano Ronaldo, and won 25 trophies with the Spanish giants.

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