Livescore Sunday, April 21
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On Sunday, with the Santiago Bernabeu empty of fans but still echoing with songs celebrating their star striker, Karim Benzema posed alongside Real Madrid president Florentino Perez while holding up a shirt.

On the back was the Frenchman’s name with the number 25 and the word ‘titles’ underneath. Alongside was a handwritten message with a signature: “For my Presi. KB9.”

Benzema is the second-highest goalscorer in Real’s history, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s the striker who produced that magical dribble at the Vicente Calderon in the semi-finals of the Champions League, that unexpected goal against Liverpool’s Loris Karius in the final in Kyiv, the hat-trick against Paris Saint-Germain and the Panenka penalty at Manchester City en route to winning the Champions League trophy last year.

Sunday saw a Real Madrid legend make his final appearance at the ground he has called home for 14 years. Today (Tuesday), his signing with Saudi Arabian club Al Ittihad was confirmed.

It signalled the end of a saga full of uncertainty, surprise and intrigue.


Let’s start with the uncertainty, or at least when the uncertainty began.

In August 2021, Benzema signed an extension to his Madrid contract, taking him up to June 30, 2023.

The Frenchman had already established himself as the side’s main focus in attack, filling the goalscoring void left by Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure in 2018.

But over the 2021-22 season, Benzema took things to an even higher level still. He scored 44 goals and provided 15 assists to help his side to a La Liga-Champions League double.

In October 2022, his performances were recognised as he won football’s ultimate individual accolade, the Ballon d’Or, just as Perez had predicted he would. “He (Perez) always told me that,” the striker said after receiving the award.

Media reports then emerged claiming Benzema’s contract had been automatically extended by a year after winning the prize, thanks to a clause in his deal.

Madrid sources — who, like others in this piece, spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their positions — denied this at the time, insisting the club does not include such clauses in any contract. Months later, further reports in Spain claimed there was instead an unwritten rule that meant any Madrid player who won the Ballon d’Or would have the option to renew for an extra 12 months.

On the night he won that award, Benzema spoke with various Spanish radio stations, including Onda Cero.

“Will I retire at Real Madrid? Yes, if there aren’t other options,” he said on air.

Benzema, who rarely appears in front of the media, tried to stay unnoticed after that. He did not even publicly speak about his controversial World Cup in Qatar, in which he did not feature for France because of a mysterious injury and after which he appeared to announce his international retirement.

He next spoke before the final of the Supercopa de Espana in January, at a tense press conference held at Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr’s facilities. There were various questions over his future but Benzema did not convince with his answers.

“Have I renewed my deal? I’m at Real Madrid. The other thing is another issue. I enjoy myself like any other player. Afterwards, we don’t know what happens in football,” he said at first.

“I’m here, in Madrid. Enjoying myself. For me, it’s year to year. I can’t say how much time I’m going to be in Madrid, but I enjoy each day here,” he continued.

In February, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported that Saudi Arabia was trying to attract Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric and Benzema with offers of lucrative two-year contracts. Benzema’s entourage denied they were talking with any other team.

On March 15, hours after French newspaper L’Equipe reported that Perez and Benzema had verbally agreed the striker’s renewal beyond this summer, sources from the club, coaching staff and the player’s entourage told The Athletic he would stay at the Bernabeu until at least the summer of 2024.

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His future at the club seemed so assured that, as Madrid-based sports website Relevo first reported and The Athletic has been able to confirm, Benzema took part in a photo session to promote next season’s shirt as one of the team’s leading figures — and in part because of his individual deal with Madrid’s shirt sponsor Adidas.

But Saudi Arabia continued with its strategy — and Benzema continued to act oddly.

This season, coaching staff sources have always highlighted Benzema’s professionalism — which they found less impressive during Ancelotti’s first spell at the club from 2013-2015. If his training data showed a slump, they put it down to his age. But his condition also meant he could not play many consecutive matches without risking injury.

While the relationship between the coaching staff and Benzema has always been good, those behind the team were disgruntled by a lack of willingness to manage his game time. That became clear in the second leg of Madrid’s Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea in April, when the striker looked upset with assistant Davide Ancelotti as he was substituted and did not shake hands with Carlo as he walked off the pitch.

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At the beginning of May, when Benzema was interviewed by Miguel Angel Diaz from the radio station Cadena COPE after Madrid’s Copa del Rey final victory, he seemed to clear up some doubts when he was asked about the importance of reaching 25 titles with Madrid, thereby equalling Marcelo’s club record.

“I’m very happy, very happy in this club,” he said. “Of course (I will continue). Let’s see… Hopefully, everyone stays here.”

But soon afterwards, Benzema told other players in the dressing room that he had received a lucrative offer from Saudi Arabia. His team-mates knew the captain was tempted by the way he announced the news.

For many seasons, Benzema has enjoyed one of the squad’s highest salaries, earning around €12million (£10.3m;$12.8m) per year after tax but, as sources close to him say, he always felt he could have earned more. His family also pushed him on that point, after several years at the top level, with lots of expenses and the huge financial opportunity presented by Saudi Arabia.

At the end of May, rumours about a move to Saudi Arabia grew once again. After Al Ittihad won the Saudi Pro League, their vice-president Ahmed Kaaki told one journalist that Benzema would sign for them, “God willing”.

On Tuesday, May 30, The Athletic reported that Benzema had informed Real about his offer from Saudi Arabia, and a club source also insisted Perez already knew the player’s decision.

We now know there were two significant movements the very next day. First, a meeting was held between Ancelotti and Benzema in which the player told his manager that he had decided to leave. Various outlets captured footage of Benzema leaving Madrid’s facilities accompanied by his main agent, Karim Djaziri.

Later that Tuesday, it became clear Benzema had asked his most trusted physiotherapist at the club, Juan Muro, to join him in Saudi Arabia. Muro had even said farewell to his colleagues at Valdebebas. Sources close to the specialist told The Athletic that Benzema had first sounded him out for the move months earlier.

On Thursday, June 1, there was another intriguing message.

“Wait for the clubs to officially announce it,” the Saudi Arabian minister of sports, Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, said of the potential signings of Benzema and Lionel Messi.

Hours later, The Athletic was able to report that Benzema was leaving following a meeting between Perez, chief executive Jose Angel Sanchez and Ancelotti where the decision was made clear. It later became apparent that, at this same meeting, it was decided Tottenham Hotspur striker Harry Kane would be their main objective in the summer transfer window.

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As news spread, some journalists even said a press conference had been arranged for that same afternoon to announce Benzema’s departure. This was swiftly denied by the club.

But the outlook changed again that evening when Benzema received a ‘Leyenda’ award from the newspaper Marca and hinted he would, in fact, stay. “Reality isn’t the internet,” he said. Marca published a news story that claimed he was not going anywhere.

At the same time, representatives employed by Benzema insisted to The Athletic that they were continuing to prepare for his move to Saudi Arabia, which was expected to be announced in the coming days. Some Madrid sources seemed disconcerted by Benzema’s words at the Leyenda awards, while others seemed more ambiguous and others suggested he would indeed stay.

On Saturday, at Valdebebas, Ancelotti was asked about Benzema in the pre-match press conference before Real’s final match of the season against Athletic Bilbao. Only when asked for a fourth time did he reassure journalists the Frenchman would stay. “He has another year on his contract, so we don’t have any doubts,” he said.

Less than 24 hours later, on Sunday morning, an official statement announced that Madrid and Benzema had reached an agreement to go their separate ways. At the Bernabeu, many of Benzema’s family and friends were present, with some travelling from as far as Reunion to support him, another sign that the end had been reached.

Also on Sunday, a group from Al Ittihad arrived in Madrid along with representatives from the Saudi Arabian government. The following day, the deal was finalised at the Four Seasons Hotel with Benzema and his entourage; The Athletic was able to exchange some brief words with the group in the lobby.

Finally, on Tuesday, Benzema’s Madrid career came full circle. At an event managed by the club, without journalists present, the Frenchman said a final farewell.

“I had a dream in my head to sign for Madrid and to finish at Madrid,” he said. “But sometimes there are other opportunities. Real Madrid will always be my family and I will always watch their games.

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“I’m never going to forget Real Madrid because it’s impossible — it’s the best club in the world, in history. There is no more. But I think it’s time for me to leave and see another story.”

A few hours later, Benzema said goodbye with a private party in the Spanish capital. It was a more intimate event, with family members and close friends. Now there are plans to fly to Saudi Arabia in the coming days for his Al Ittihad presentation.

And so ends a spectacular and legendary chapter in Real Madrid’s modern history.

(Top photo: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images. Visual design by Samuel Richardson)



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