Riyadh: France’s World Cup-winning midfielder N’Golo Kante has joined Saudi Arabian champions Al Ittihad, the club said in a statement yesterday, joining up with compatriot Karim Benzema.
“Kante is an Ittihad player now!” the club said on Twitter, while chairman Anmar Al Hailee tweeted: “Welcome to our new tiger Kante,” a reference to the team’s nickname.
The 32-year-old becomes the latest in a line of European stars choosing to ply their trade in the kingdom, which is making big-money moves across elite sport.
A dynamic and industrious midfielder, Kante won the World Cup with France in 2018.
His club career also glitters. He won the Champions League and World Club Cup with Chelsea, as well as back-to-back Premier League titles with Leicester City and Chelsea.
Kante’s contract with the London club was set to expire this month and they paid him a handsome tribute in bidding him farewell.
“N’Golo’s impact and influence during his time at Chelsea cannot be overstated,” said Chelsea’s co-sporting directors Laurence Stewart and Paul Winstanley in a club statement.
“His tireless performances in midfield contributed to several trophy wins and has guaranteed him a place in the club’s history.”
He has signed a three-year deal with Al Ittihad, the Jeddah-based team said in a statement, though it gave no details of how much Kante will earn.
The Saudi club said: “Kante’s addition to Al-Ittihad is considered one of the most high-profile and impactful signings in the club’s history.
“It is part of the club’s efforts to establish itself as a top choice for world-class players in the Saudi Professional League.”
He will wear the number seven shirt, which he also donned at Chelsea.
Current Ballon d’Or holder Benzema joined Al Ittihad earlier this month, after 14 seasons with Real Madrid in which he won five Champions Leagues, four La Liga titles and three Copas del Rey.
In a video posted online by the club, Benzema, 35, said in a message to his fellow Frenchman: “One time I told you, you’re the best player, box to box, in the world. Now I’m happy to play with you again, and of course in the best team in Saudi.”
Kante said he was “very excited to play for the Tigers”.
The kingdom’s league had already signed up five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, who joined Al-Nassr in January.
His fellow Portuguese international Ruben Neves, currently of Wolves, is reportedly set to join Al Hilal.
Argentina legend Lionel Messi, widely considered the greatest player of all time, declined to make a similar move despite a lengthy Saudi courtship, and will instead join Inter Miami in the United States.
With its oil riches, Saudi Arabia — a conservative monarchy frequently criticised over its human rights record — has swiftly achieved a prominent role in world sports.
Attracting tourists and investors
In football, the presumed goal is hosting the World Cup, which is intended to lift Saudi Arabia’s profile and prestige as it tries to diversify its oil-reliant economy by attracting tourists and investors.
In the coming years, Saudi Arabia will organise the men’s Asian Cup football, the Olympic-style Asian Games and even the Asian Winter Games in 2029.
The Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), the state’s sovereign wealth vehicle, holds an 80 per cent stake in Newcastle United, who finished fourth in the Premier League last season.