Football: "In Saudi Arabia, the big five clubs are worth Ligue 1 teams"

Karim Benzema, the French Ballon d'Or, joins Al-Ittihad in Saudi Arabia, far from Europe and Real Madrid with whom he shone for 14 years. In the Saudi league, he will get a lot of money and he will be reunited with his former teammate, Cristiano Ronaldo. Former Malagasy international Fanéva Andriatsima, who played in French Ligue 2, is not surprised. The striker, and former iconic captain of the Barea, played in Saudi Arabia in 2019 and 2020, in two relatively modest clubs, Abha and Al-Fayha. He has very good memories of it.

Former Malagasy captain Faneva Andriatsima in Antananarivo, July 13, 2019. (Illustration). AFP - RIJASOLO

Text by: Hugo Moissonnier


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RFI: Faneva, you joined Saudi Arabia in 2019. What motivates you at the time and in what state of mind were you when you flew into this championship away from Europe?

Faneva Andriatsima: At the time, I had two options: go to Qatar or Saudi Arabia. I was leaning towards Qatar, but I chose Saudi Arabia in the end because there were many more foreigners playing in this league. In Qatar, the number of foreigners per team was limited to three, which was not the case in Saudi Arabia. For me, it showed that this country was more professional with foreign players who could raise the level.

Precisely, once there, was the level in line with what you expected?

Yes, honestly! I was in a club that had just set up [Abha], we were playing on a good pitch, a stadium that was full. My first game was against Al Hilal and it was sold out. It was impressive. Against us, it was a very strong team with great players, with principles of play like in Europe. This is a team that still played in a Club World Cup semi-final. So, from that first game, I realize that it's an incredible championship, I didn't think that at all at first. In Riyadh, the capital, there are two big clubs, Al Hilal and Al Shabab. In Jeddah, there is Al Ittihad which is very popular. Frankly, there are four or five big clubs in the country that have nothing to envy to Ligue 1 clubs in infrastructure, training centers, football academies.

If you could talk to Karim Benzema, who has just signed for Al Ittihad, and who has experienced the Champions League, La Liga, what would you tell him in terms of technical level to describe the Saudi league?

We will say that the five big teams, Al Hilal and Al Shabab, Al Ittihad, Al Nassr, Al Ahli are worth Ligue 1 teams at the end of the table. After, the last 10 clubs fighting for the maintenance, it is worth the end of the Ligue 2 table. But, the championship is taking another dimension with the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo first and now Karim Benzema. Knowing that Al Ittihad, where Benzema will play, is the club with the most fans in Saudi Arabia. This is the people's club.

Did you see this craze coming in Saudi Arabia? Bring in stars, raise the level of the championship to, ultimately, apply for the organization of a World Cup. Does this surprise you?

No, not so much. The Saudis have ambition, and why not organize a World Cup as the Qataris did. I was still there when they launched the "Expo 2030" project to declare their candidacy to host the World Cup in 2030 and to promote sport and a year later, Cristiano Ronaldo signed. I am not surprised now and I admit that if I had known, I would have left to play in this league earlier.

Did you like it, even in terms of the environment? For a football, is it the right environment to practice its sport?

Everyone has their thing, but my family was there for a year, and there was no problem. It's everyone's choice. There are people, for example, going to live in Montbéliard, it's impossible (laughs). I was in Montbéliard [Editor's note: Editor's note: in the eastern part of France, in the Bourgogne-Franche-Compté region]. In Saudi Arabia, you live your life with your family, your children and you feel safe there.

There is a lot of talk about money with the transfers of Ronaldo and Benzema, is there actually a big difference financially compared to the France?

Yes, they pay well, but they expect you to perform well, otherwise, they do not hesitate to find another player. In Saudi Arabia, there is the tax advantage that makes the difference. It's simple, a Ligue 1 team would have to pay a player 100,000 euros per month to compete with the last team in the Saudi League. I was making a good living in Ligue 2, but going to Saudi Arabia allowed me to save money and prepare well for my reconversion. Today, I can still invest or do a small project after playing in Saudi Arabia.

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