Riyadh: When Karim Benzema joined Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad this year on a lucrative deal, a comfortable pre-retirement stint seemed assured for the Ballon d’Or winner.
It is not turning out that way.
A series of missed chances later, including a botched penalty at the Club World Cup, and suddenly the 35-year-old Frenchman is facing the wrath of the Jeddah club’s fans.
At his gala unveiling in June, drones formed the roaring face of a tiger — Al-Ittihad’s nickname — above their 62,000-capacity stadium in Jeddah. But now, supporters are mocking Benzema as a pussycat.
And with a distracting rivalry with teammate Abderrazak Hamdallah, and it has been a difficult start for the ex-Real Madrid star.
Benzema’s Instagram account, with 76 million followers, disappeared after Tuesday’s 5-2 loss to Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr, perhaps in anticipation of a flood of negative comment.
With Al Ittihad sixth in the 18-team Saudi Pro League, despite signing Benzema, N’Golo Kante and Brazil’s Fabinho in the summer, a source close to the team’s management admitted that the new arrivals “have not yet achieved the desired result”.
Expecting more from world-class player
The official, who preferred to remain anonymous because he was not authorised to speak to the media, told AFP: “Of course, we were expecting more from Benzema, especially, but we realise his value as a world-class player.”
“It is not always easy to move to a new country and league and shine immediately. It is a matter of time,” the official added.
Lost the desire
Benzema cuts an isolated figure on the field. On Tuesday he missed three clear scoring chances and gave away a penalty as Al Ittihad slumped to their third straight defeat.
His missed spot-kick against Egypt’s Al Ahly in the Club World Cup particularly enraged fans, as the big-spending competition hosts exited after just two games.
Benzema is going through a “very strange situation” that sometimes afflicts a “high-level tactical player”, Saudi sports broadcaster Abdul Karim Al Jasser told the state-owned Al Ekhbariya channel.
“He may be at odds with the situation of Al Ittihad Club and the internal affairs of the club,” Jasser said.
“But that does not excuse him because he does not make any effort in matches, misses very easy opportunities, and seems to have lost the desire to play football,” he added.
Poor goal record
Benzema has scored nine goals including two penalties in 15 league games so far — a solid return, but behind Ronaldo’s 19, Aleksandar Mitrovic’s 16 and Georges-Kevin N’Koudou on 14.
Al Ittihad have shipped the most league goals and scored the fewest out of the four teams that were acquired by Public Investment Fund this year.
It is unfair to aim all the criticism at Benzema, as Al Ittihad parted ways with their coach Nuno Espirito Santo last month before hiring Marcelo Gallardo of Argentina.
Fans, however, have been unloading on the five-time Champions League winner, posting pictures that compare him to a cat, who is good at meowing rather than scoring goals.
Others commented that he is a “burden on the team” and one of the reasons for their defeats.
‘He plays without spirit’
Al Ittihad fans focus mainly on what happens on the pitch.
“Benzema let the team down in the big matches,” complained Amir, a fan who only wanted to give his first name.
“He is the team’s captain, but he does not give any impression that he is the team’s leader. He plays without spirit, as if he is in another world,” added the 35-year-old.