The Santiago Bernabeu audience, who received immediate applause, witnessed a penalty scored by Karim Benzema in the match against Club Athletic, resulting in a 1-1 draw. It was his last game playing for the club, and the announcement of his departure from Real Madrid happened quickly on Sunday morning, following the fast-paced events of the afternoon.
Madrid has seen high-profile departures as this defining era of the team reaches its end, with Champions Leagues trophies of five, including a record of 25, and his 451 goals on the front, Ronaldo only trailing Stefano di Alfredo and Gonzalez Raul in the way out. He has also scored more goals for Madrid than captain club and is the winner of the reigning Ballon d’Or at 35, Benzema. This felt even more jarring, but in 2022, Marcelo and Casemiro, in 2021, Ramos Sergio, and in 2018, Cristiano Ronaldo, have departed.
After 14 years, he leaves to join Al Ittihad Arabia’s Saudi. He leaves behind moments and memories of a player who made football feel like art, executing perfect scissor kicks and dancing past three defenders in 2017 against Ajax, leading Paris Saint-Germain to a comeback in the last season. He leaves more than just statistics, as Benzema was a player whose work on the field left a lasting impression.
A year since this Benzema hat-trick ⚽️⚽️⚽️@Benzema || #UCL pic.twitter.com/Ru8BHkoLi0
A player who arrived in Madrid as a shy and introverted 21-year-old, Benzema became the underrated fulcrum of the great Real Madrid sides, stepping into the spotlight and becoming the main man by winning three consecutive Champions Leagues before culminating in the Ballon d’Or ascent. Even Mourinho, Jose questioned his potential goal-scoring, but Benzema proved himself to be one of the greats.
However, the 2022-23 season brought with it a sense of disappointment. Benzema, at last, started to display signs of aging, and although his statistics remained impressive – including scoring 19 goals in LaLiga – the aura of effortless brilliance, of surpassing all others and playing a completely distinct game, was absent.
ESPN has spoken to close sources who say that Real Madrid and Benzema understand the difficulty of the final season decision to accept the offer from Saudi Arabia and carefully laid out succession plans for 2024, turning upside down the Ballon d’Or journey of his high career stage in Madrid.
With additional reporting from Julien Laurens and Rodrigo Faez.
In 2022-23, sources informed ESPN that the extensive workload had adverse effects on Benzema, to such an extent that his physique had been pushed to its limits during that campaign, participating in 56 matches for his club and country. Perhaps a decline in performance was unavoidable, considering his extraordinary and unexpected 2021-22 season – achieving a personal record of 27 league goals and 15 goals in the Champions League at the age of 34. In hindsight, it seems like the start of the decline for Benzema, as winning the Ballon d’Or would signify the beginning of a new and triumphant phase in the careers of many players.
Instead, he was viewed as disposable.
Deschamps was convinced that he could have featured him later in the competition if Benzema had been selected, sources told ESPN. The player was later labeled as a “clown” by the coach on social media.
A year ago, echoing his performance in the Champions League, Benzema came back to LaLiga with a strong determination to make a statement after his disappointment in the World Cup. Argentina ended up as the second-place finishers, losing to Lionel Messi and his teammates on penalties after Kylian Mbappé’s impressive three-goal performance forced a shootout. On February 21st, he managed to score a total of 12 goals in the two months following Christmas, which included two goals in Madrid’s 5-2 victory against Liverpool.
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In the semifinal of the Champions League, Manchester City started both legs against Pep Guardiola’s side, Real Madrid, making little impact as they were soon humbled by Benzema and the Spanish side. Meanwhile, Barcelona were already running away with the LaLiga title, so it was clear by April that they would be the champions. The highlight of the season came in the Copa del Rey, where Benzema notched a hat trick in a 4-0 victory over Barcelona at the Nou Camp, becoming the King of the Cup.
Sources informed ESPN that a one-year contract extension had been agreed upon to keep Benzema at the club until 2023-24, marking the last hurrah for him. Nobody was panicking. Benzema’s goal-scoring figures in the World Cup, Club World Cup, and Copa del Rey were his worst since 2018, while Real Madrid reached the semifinals of the Champions League and the finals of the UEFA Super Cup, Copa del Rey, and Club World Cup. Madrid finished a distant second in LaLiga, 10 points behind Barcelona.
Only a signature was missing.
The final two-year contract offer from Ittihad Al, if accepted, would be worth a staggering €400 million in bonuses and wages, making it a highly lucrative deal. Kaaki and Al-Haili, the president and vice president of Madrid, traveled to meet with the president of Ittihad Al in person, hoping to further discuss and conclude the deal.
Now it was time to tell Madrid, and in particular the club’s president Florentino Perez, who had always been Benzema’s biggest supporter.
Perez requested them to consider it for a day. Benzema and Djaziri informed Perez that the player had already made a decision. Benzema, along with his agent Djaziri, Perez, and Juni Calafat, the club’s main scout, were all in attendance. The initial meeting took place on May 31st at Real Madrid’s Valdebebas training facility. There were two discussions with Perez, during which he exerted every effort to convince Benzema to remain.
He had already taken effect until the contract extension of Benzema in 2024, so it was untrue that the story briefed to the club journalists at the same time was that he would not leave. Coach Ancelotti was later informed that Benzema had decided to leave, as reported by ESPN the next day. Perez was aware that this meant careful planning for the club’s next season, and he was angry that Benzema had not changed his mind. The club learned this on 1st June and they spoke again.
Benzema, in an awkward evening, received the “Legend” award from Marca newspaper, due to his public speaking. He did not want to confirm the news, preferring to wait for the final game of the season and the weekend in Madrid. He had prepared an answer for the inevitable question and said, “Why would I talk about the internet when it isn’t reality?” Even though Marca reported that Benzema was preparing farewell videos, he stayed with the club when his departure was made public.
ESPN informed insiders that Benzema was content with his choice. It was regarded as the appropriate moment, considering this Madrid squad’s ongoing transformation and the possibility of another disappointing season that could damage his reputation. He was also pleased with his modest goodbye at the Bernabeu on Sunday. Benzema participated, netted a goal, and received applause, but there were no formal addresses or extravagant displays.
It was a somber occasion when Benzema expressed his gratitude to Perez, Ancelotti, and the supporters during a modest farewell gathering at Madrid’s training facility on Tuesday. His speech lasted only three minutes.
Benzema expressed, “It pains me, and I am departing from this club.” “While at Madrid, I aspired to conclude [my professional journey] and I harbored a dream to join Madrid, but occasionally in life, alternative prospects arise.”
From here, attention now turns to Saudi Arabia, where Benzema has already spoken to coach Nuno Santo Espirito of Ittihad Al, to discuss the sporting club’s project. He sees Madrid in his house as his long-term home, where he hopes to keep winning trophies, whether it be the World Club Cup or the AFC Champions League. Sources told ESPN Arabia that he will keep his house in Madrid.
Real Madrid is already planning a busy summer to strengthen their attack, midfield, and defense, even considering the possibility of bringing in Benzema.
The deal to bring back Garcia Fran to Dortmund Borussia from Bellingham Jude, the midfielder from England, has been agreed upon. They are also close to finalizing a loan for Joselu, the forward from Spain who scored 16 goals this season for Espanyol, who got relegated. Additionally, they have agreed upon a deal to bring back Garcia Fran, a youth product from Rayo Vallecano, the high-flying left-back.
Madrid’s only senior attacking players, such as Rodrygo and Júnior Vinícius, will also be leaving. Mariano Diaz and Eden Hazard are among those departing. Marco Asensio, who confirmed his departure from the club this weekend, is not the only forward leaving. Karim Benzema will remain, but his intended successor, Joselu, will not be his deputy.
Madrid sees him as a flexible attacker who could make a valuable contribution, keeping in mind their long-term interest in Kai Havertz – whom they were eager to acquire before he joined Chelsea from Bayer Leverkusen in 2020. Joselu is a notable improvement over the out-of-favor Mariano, and Brahim Diaz, who is returning from a three-year loan at AC Milan, will provide cover for Asensio.
Perez possesses personal knowledge of managing Spurs chairman Daniel Levy following the prolonged acquisitions of Modric in 2012 and Gareth Bale in 2013. Insider information from sources informed ESPN that Harry Kane is the player the club has pinpointed as the most suitable substitute for Benzema at present. However, concerns arise regarding his age, as the English star will reach 30 years old next month, as well as the possibility of a €100m transfer fee and the potential for protracted negotiations with Tottenham.
Overall, Madrid’s transfer strategy for this summer has been disrupted by Benzema’s choice. One aspect of the plan that was unexpected and not included in the budget was the need to find a replacement for Benzema immediately, someone who can consistently score 25 goals per season. The funds that could have been saved will now have to be spent this summer, which also adds complexity to the ideal scenario of signing Mbappe or Erling Haaland for the Bernabeu in 2024.