Saudi Arabia refuses to be a golden cage and demands performance from stars like Benzema

That football does not matter to the Saudis and is simply ‘sportswashing’ is a categorical lie. It is one of the great passions of the Middle Eastern country. It’s everywhere. Simply by turning on the television in a hotel you will find almost a dozen sports channels, of which at least five are for broadcasting matches. Both international leagues and the local one, which, by no means, is a succession of empty stadiums. The other way around. That is why Saudi Arabia demands performance from stars like Benzema. They do not want to be a golden cage or an ephemeral project like Qatar or China; They seek to win.

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Benzema is going through a difficult moment in the Al-Ittihad. His performance has been harshly criticized and he has not shown up to travel to the stage that his team will hold in Dubai (United Arab Emirates) while the Asia Cup is being held. According to ‘Marca’, the argument offered by the Frenchman is that He was stuck on the island of Mauritius.where I was on vacation, due to a cyclone. The Argentine coach of Al-Ittihad, Marcelo Gallardo, has left him out of the squad.

Al-Ittihad’s failure in the Club World Cup

It is not the first episode of this type that the former Real Madrid forward has starred in. At the beginning of the year, he left Saudi Arabia for the Spanish capital, something that would be known days later. He asked for three days off. Al-Ittihad had to give a public argument after the ‘disappearance’ of a player who decided to close his Instagram account after the tough defeat at the end of 2023 against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr (2-5).

To this we must add the poor performance of the Jeddah team in the recent Club World Cup that the coastal city hosted precisely. Benzema could only make up for the win against Egyptian Al-Ahly in stoppage time, the most successful team in Africa. Al-Ittihad participated in the tournament as champions of the Saudi Arabian league. That is, for being a host.

Benzema, in his presentation with Al-Ittihad. EFE

It was an opportunity to vindicate the country’s football, even more so when scenarios such as the possible participation of a Saudi team in a hypothetical Super League are imagined. Arabia is going at cruising speed, both socially and sportingly. He wants to build a league in the ‘top 10’ in the world, an ambition conveyed by those who know the ins and outs of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation and Saudi Pro League.

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There will continue to be Saudi investment in signings

This is the case of Abdulaziz Al Rabah, who for a decade has been editor-in-chief of Sports at Al Arabiya, the most important Arabic-language channel. “The first round of the League championship after the market in which the big signings arrived has been exciting. “It is true that Al-Hilal (Neymar’s team and the most successful in the country) is the outstanding leader and that the race for the title will be with Al-Nassr, but there have been all kinds of results with the teams below,” the journalist explains to this newspaper, who foresees a “spectacular and massive” upcoming summer market.

Far from the messages that are conveyed in Europe, about the ephemerality of the Saudi Arabia project, in the country that robbed the bank a few months ago they reaffirm that they will continue to increase the competitiveness of the league. Although not without losing one’s mind and even less without demanding results. For the 2024/2025 season, the Saudi Professional League has approved that the places for foreign players be expanded from eight to ten.

It is true that the state’s intention is for private investors to take over from the Public Investment Fund that took majority control of the country’s four main clubs: Al-Ittihad, Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli. The public body also became the owner of Newcastle. The management in the Premier team shows that its football culture is different from that of, for example, American owners like Todd Boehly.

Henderson and Benzema, in an advertising campaign in Riyadh. Denís Iglesias

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While Chelsea is a paradigm of waste, the backbone of the ‘magpies’ has remained. While last season Newcastle qualified for the Champions League two decades later, it is currently going through one of its worst moments. This will force the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohamed bin Salman, ‘de facto’ owner of the club, to make a move. But always with the philosophy of demanding performance, if possible, immediate.

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That is why with Benzema, both the fans and the owners of Al-Ittihad are very dissatisfied. Despite the signings of the French striker, Luiz Felipe, Fabinho and Kanté, the Jeddah club, the second with the most leagues (nine, like Al-Nassr) is seventh, 25 together behind the leader Al-Hilal. This has reversed the situation for the former Real Madrid forward, who has gone from imagining a golden retirement to feeling the pressure of an emerging league that demands quick results.

There has been talk in recent days that some of the stars like Henderson or Firmino are thinking about ending their contracts in Saudi Arabia early. There are all kinds of justifications: heat, humidity, lack of motivation, substitutions, a different style…

When they really live in remote villages where they have absolutely everything: private schools for their children, shopping centers and, in their circles, as they do in Europe, they practically live a life in a bubble. To this we must add that the facilities of most of the clubs are first class and Artificial grass, despite the fact that 95% of the country is desert, is not even an option.

Football program on Saudi television. Denís Iglesias

Cristiano Ronaldo is the example of a player that Arabia wants

But the real cultural shock is the football itself that they have encountered. Each club is a world, with a philosophy, although everyone strives to make the league an attractive scenario (the league’s strategic positions are all foreigners). However, above all things, the feeling that they are not being able to correspond with is that of winning, something that all teams and fans want. Not everyone can get there.

It is not so easy to turn back, because the players are in a contractual labyrinth. To enjoy the tax advantages offered by their contracts, they would have to stay two more years. Otherwise, in Henderson’s case, could contract a debt of eight million with the British treasury, according to the media in his country. A gibberish that is combined with the obligation to respond to sporting obligations that someone seemed to have forgotten about.

“They follow their local league a lot, especially the four big teams: Al-Ittihad, Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli. There are many fans, who are also massive in the fields. In all the bars there are “The signings have filled the fields more,” adds David Cabildo, Spanish coach of Eastern Flames FC in the Saudi women’s league. It is the definition of the culture of effort that Saudi Arabia demands of its players and with which Cristiano Ronaldo, the best ambassador of the championship, has known how to communicate, unlike Benzema. The Frenchman was going to find a spiritual refuge in Riyadh and this ended up being Madrid.

2024-01-14 12:55:14
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