When it happened, it happened fast. Real Madrid announced on Sunday morning that Karim Benzema was leaving and by the afternoon, he was playing his last game for the club, a 1-1 draw with Athletic Club in which he scored a penalty and was immediately substituted to receive the applause of the Santiago Bernabeu crowd.
Madrid have seen high-profile departures before as this era-defining team reaches the end of its cycle -- Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018, Sergio Ramos in 2021 and Casemiro and Marcelo in 2022 -- but this felt even more jarring. Benzema, 35, is the reigning Ballon d'Or winner. He's also the club captain and scored 354 goals for Madrid, more than Raul Gonzalez and Alfredo di Stefano and trailing only Ronaldo, way out in front on 451 goals. His record 25 trophies include five Champions Leagues.
And now, after 14 years, he leaves to join Saudi Arabia's Al Ittihad. He leaves those statistics, but more than that -- Benzema was never really about the numbers -- he leaves memories and moments, the work of a player who made football feel like art. Picture him dancing past three Atletico Madrid defenders in 2017, executing a perfect scissor kick against Ajax in 2012, or leading last season's logic-defying comeback against Paris Saint-Germain.
A player who arrived in Madrid as a shy, introverted 21-year-old -- his goal-scoring potential even questioned by then-manager, Jose Mourinho -- Benzema became the underrated fulcrum of one of the great Real Madrid sides, winning three consecutive Champions Leagues before stepping into the spotlight to become the main man, an ascent that culminated in the Ballon d'Or.
However, the 2022-23 season was a disappointment. Benzema finally began to show his age, and while those numbers were still good -- including 19 goals in LaLiga -- the feeling of effortless excellence, of being not just better than the rest but playing a different sport entirely, wasn't there.
ESPN has spoken to sources close to Benzema and the club to better understand this last stage of his Real Madrid journey, from the career high of the Ballon d'Or to a difficult final season, the decision to accept the offer from Saudi Arabia and Madrid's carefully laid succession plans for 2024 being turned upside down.
With added reporting from Julien Laurens and Rodrigo Faez.
For many players, lifting the Ballon d'Or would mark the beginning of a new, triumphant phase in their career. For Benzema, with hindsight, it looks like the beginning of the end. His 2021-22 season was so remarkable and so unlikely -- scoring a career-best 27 league and 15 Champions League goals at the age of 34 -- that perhaps a drop-off was inevitable. His body had been pushed to the limit, with 56 games for club and country during that campaign, so much so that Benzema is convinced, sources told ESPN, that the heavy workload had negative consequences in 2022-23.
Benzema started Madrid's first four league games of the 2022-23 season, picked up a hamstring injury and was out for a month. He came back, playing another five games -- scoring in a 3-1 Clasico win over Barcelona in October and collecting the Ballon d'Or in Paris a day later -- before getting injured again on Oct. 21.
The timing was difficult: with just under a month until the expected callup for France's World Cup squad, Benzema had little time to recover. Benzema appeared just once for Madrid in that time, as a second-half substitute in a 5-1 win over Celtic in the UEFA Champions League group stage.
Was he working hard to regain his fitness or keeping himself in reserve for the biggest international tournament of his career, having spent six years in exile between 2015 and 2021? Either way, being left out of France's World Cup squad by coach Didier Deschamps -- after picking up a thigh injury in training on Nov. 19 -- was devastating. The tournament should have been Benzema's chance to confirm his Ballon d'Or status as the world's best. Instead, he was viewed as disposable.
Sources told ESPN Benzema was convinced that he could have featured later in the competition if Deschamps had selected him. The player later labelled the coach a "clown" and "liar" on social media.
Following that World Cup disappointment -- France would finish runners-up to Argentina, losing to Lionel Messi & Co. on penalties after Kylian Mbappé's hat trick took the game to a shootout -- Benzema returned to LaLiga determined to prove a point. He scored 12 goals in the two months after Christmas, including a brace in Madrid's 5-2 win at Liverpool on Feb. 21, an echo of his Champions League form a year earlier.
The season's highlight came in the Copa del Rey, with Benzema notching a hat trick in a 4-0 victory over Barcelona at Camp Nou on April 5. By that point, Barca were already running away with LaLiga's title race while in the Champions League, Madrid would soon be humbled by Manchester City. Benzema started both legs of the semifinal against Pep Guardiola's side, making little impact as the Spanish side were bounced 5-1 on aggregate.
Madrid finished a distant second in LaLiga, 10 points behind Barcelona, and defeated Champions League semifinalists, while picking up the Copa del Rey, UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup. Benzema's goal-scoring figures were his worst since 2018. Still, nobody was panicking. Sources had told ESPN that a one-year contract extension, to keep Benzema at the club for one last hurrah in 2023-24, had been agreed.
Just a signature was lacking.
In public, Benzema had said little about his future. He rarely gives interviews, and there had been just one news conference appearance involving the France forward in all of 2023 to date. There, speaking ahead of the Spanish Supercopa final, being held in Saudi Arabia, on Jan. 14, his words were noncommittal.
"I'm here at Madrid," he said. "For me, it's year by year. I can't talk about how long I'll be here. What I can say is I enjoy every day ... what happens in football, you never know."
Behind the scenes, sources told ESPN that some suspicions were being raised by Benzema's apparent hesitation to sign his contract extension. If the player, club and coach Carlo Ancelotti were all in agreement, why the delay?
Benzema had been made aware of interest from Saudi Arabia earlier this year. Agent Karim Djaziri, who has represented Benzema since the player was 16 years old, was in touch with the Saudi Pro League, through Al Ittihad vice-president Ahmed Kaaki.
The Saudis have big plans in football. Ronaldo is already at Al Nassr; Benzema, Messi, Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric and others have been contacted to gauge their interest in coming to the Middle East as well. Initially, Benzema wasn't keen -- he felt ready to play another season at the highest level -- but he didn't turn down the proposal outright.
As LaLiga's season went on, Benzema began to ask questions. His fragile form and fitness didn't help, but he was still inclined to stay.
The Saudis increased the pressure on Benzema, upping their offer in May. In telephone discussions, they seemed willing to accept each and every demand that Benzema could think to make, such as a desire to employ his own personal fitness coach. On May 30, ESPN first reported that Benzema was considering his future and after discussions with his entourage, friends and teammates, he decided to accept.
The final two-year contract offer from Al Ittihad would be worth a staggering €400 million: €172m in wages, plus bonuses. Al Ittihad president Anmar Al-Haili and vice president Kaaki travelled to Madrid for further talks, hoping to conclude the deal in person.
Now it was time to tell Madrid, and in particular the club's president Florentino Perez, who had always been Benzema's biggest supporter.
There were two conversations with Perez, who did everything to persuade Benzema to stay. The first came on May 31, at Real Madrid's Valdebebas training ground. Benzema, his agent Djaziri, Perez and Juni Calafat, the club's chief scout, were present. Benzema and Djaziri told Perez that the player's mind was made up. Perez asked them to take a day to think it over.
They spoke again June 1, and the club learned Benzema had not changed his mind. Perez was angry, aware of what this meant for the club's careful planning for next season. Coach Ancelotti was informed and, later that day, ESPN reported that Benzema had decided to leave. At the same time, journalists close to the club were briefed that the story was untrue, that Benzema's contract extension until 2024 had already taken effect, and that he would not be leaving.
Awkwardly, Benzema was due to speak in public that evening as he collected a "Legend" award from the newspaper Marca. He did not want to confirm the news, preferring to wait for the weekend and Madrid's final game of the season, and had an answer prepared for the inevitable question. "Why would I talk about my future, if I'm at Madrid?" he said. "It's the internet talking. And reality isn't the internet." Meanwhile, even as Marca reported that Benzema would stay, the club were already preparing farewell videos for use when his departure was made public.
Benzema was at peace with his decision, sources told ESPN. He did not want to risk tarnishing his legacy with another underwhelming season and with this Madrid team already in transition, this was seen as the right time. He was happy, too, with his understated farewell at the Bernabeu on Sunday. There were no speeches or grand gestures, but Benzema played, scored and received his ovation.
Even at a low-key farewell event at Madrid's training ground on Tuesday, Benzema spoke for just three minutes. He thanked Perez, Ancelotti and the fans, calling it "a sad day."
"I'm leaving this club, and it hurts me," Benzema said. "I had a dream to sign for Madrid and I wanted to finish [my career] at Madrid, but sometimes in life you get other opportunities."
From here, his attention now turns to Saudi Arabia. Sources told ESPN that Benzema has already spoken to Al Ittihad coach Nuno Espirito Santo -- formerly of Valencia, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur -- to discuss the club's sporting project. He will keep his house in Madrid, which he sees as his long-term home, and he hopes to keep winning trophies: the AFC Champions League, or the Club World Cup, where Al Ittihad could perhaps one day face Madrid.
Alejandro Moreno explains why he believes Harry Kane is the only candidate to replace Karim Benzema at Real Madrid.
This was already going to be a busy summer for Real Madrid, with plans to strengthen in defence, midfield and attack even when they still believed they could count on Benzema.
The focus has been on signing England midfielder Jude Bellingham from Borussia Dortmund. A deal is agreed to bring back high-flying left-back Fran Garcia -- a Madrid youth product -- from Rayo Vallecano, and they're also close to a loan for Spain forward Joselu, who scored 16 goals this season for relegated Espanyol.
However, Joselu was meant to be Benzema's deputy, not his successor, and Benzema isn't the only forward leaving. The club confirmed this weekend that Marco Asensio, Eden Hazard and Mariano Diaz will also depart. That leaves Vinícius Júnior and Rodrygo as Madrid's only senior attacking players.
Brahim Diaz, returning from a three-year loan at AC Milan, will cover for Asensio, while Joselu is a significant upgrade on the out-of-favour Mariano. Otherwise, Madrid have not forgotten about long-term target Kai Havertz -- whom they were keen to sign before he left Bayer Leverkusen for Chelsea in 2020 -- viewing him as a versatile forward who could contribute across the front line.
Sources have told ESPN that Harry Kane is the player the club have identified as being the best available Benzema replacement right now, but there are doubts over his age -- the England star turns 30 next month -- and a potential €100m transfer fee, and the prospect of drawn-out negotiations with Tottenham. (Perez has first-hand experience of dealing with Spurs chairman Daniel Levy after the protracted signings of Modric in 2012 and Gareth Bale in 2013.)
Overall, Benzema's decision has upended Madrid's summer transfer strategy. Replacing Benzema now, with a player of the requisite quality and who offers a consistent 25 goals-a-season threat, was not part of the plan and had not been budgeted for. It also complicates the dream scenario of a successful move to bring Mbappe or Erling Haaland to the Bernabeu in 2024, as funds that could have been reserved will need to be spent this summer.
Thanks to Benzema, what has so far been a meticulous, well-executed transition -- with Vinicius, Rodrygo, Eduardo Camavinga, Eder Militao, Aurelien Tchouameni and others in place as the team's present and future -- will now have to speed up and get ahead of schedule.