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Euro 2020: Karim Benzema’s Renaissance

Euro 2020: Karim Benzema’s Renaissance. We take an in-depth look at Karim Benzema’s renaissance and return to the French national side.

It was a familiar scene to all those involved. Real Madrid, who entered their final match of the season in need of a victory as well as a favourable result elsewhere, found themselves down early on to Villarreal at home after 18-year-old Yeremi Pino opened the scoring for El Submarino Amarillo. They came close to evening the scoreline via Karim Benzema, who headed home a cross from Casemiro only for the goal to be ruled offsides due to the tiniest of margins, but they found themselves deterred by an organized Villarreal backline as well as their own lack of firepower in attack – including two uncharacteristic misses from Benzema. Then, in the 87th minute, the magic happened: ‘El Gato’ picked up a square pass from Rodrygo at the edge of the box before caressing it into the top-right corner of the net. Shortly after, Benzema collected an overhit cross from Rodrygo, drove inside and pushed Mario Gaspar deep into his own box, and chipped a pass towards Luka Modrić, who controlled the ball on his chest and smashed in the half-volley. Benzema lifted his fists to the sky and collapsed onto his back, grimacing with a mix of relief and fatigue that would correspond better to a marathon runner who, while not meeting his personal goal, could finally see the finish line after a long and weary race.

He would’ve known that, over in the Estadio José Zorrilla, their crosstown rivals had replicated their storyline, with goals from Luis Suárez and Ángel Correa erasing Real Valladolid’s early lead, delivering Atlético Madrid their first league title in seven years and relegating Valladolid to the Segunda. He would’ve seen the rumours that his manager and one of his most fervent supporters, Zinedine Zidane, looks increasingly likely to step down from his role at the end of the season. He would’ve realized that, for the first time in 11 years, he would be finishing his season without a trophy at Real Madrid.

It has been another Herculean campaign for the 33-year-old striker, who provided 30 goals and 9 assists across all competitions and led an injury-plagued Madrid side to the Champions League semifinals as well as a title fight until the final match of the season. Real Madrid’s second-top scorers, Casemiro and Marco Asensio, racked up seven goals apiece, a statistic made perhaps even more embarrassing by the fact that Gareth Bale, Benzema’s longtime partner in attack, racked up an impressive 16 goals and 3 assists while on loan at Tottenham Hotspur, chipping in a goal every 84 minutes in the Premier League. Benzema, meanwhile, has time and time again been the sole attacking threat for Madrid, with the likes of Eden Hazard, Rodrygo and Vinícius Júnior struggling to justify their lofty price tags since arriving in the Spanish capital. The French striker even landed himself in hot water in October, when during halftime of a Champions League match against Borussia Mönchengladbach, he told his compatriot Ferland Mendy to not pass the ball to Vinícius, warning, “Don’t play with him. On my mother’s life, is playing against us.”

While the statement may have been brutal and harsh on the young Brazilian, the fact remains that Benzema has carried Madrid’s attack on his shoulders since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus in 2018. Often criticized for his lack of end product and unselfish playing style, ‘El Gato’ racked up 30 goals and 11 assists in 2018/19, a tally only bettered by that of 2011/12, but he was unable to prevent Los Blancos from exiting the Champions League at the Round of 16 and losing the league title to Barcelona by a whopping 18 points. Despite the high-profile signings of Hazard and Luka Jović, Benzema continued to be the team’s lone attacking talisman under Zidane in the following season, providing 27 goals and 11 assists to carry Madrid to the league title.

This time, however, things are different. For the first time since 2014, Benzema won’t be spending the next two months suntanning in Miami or Los Angeles and recharging his batteries ahead of another jam-packed campaign. Instead, he’ll be preparing to lead the line for France and spearhead them to their second straight European Championship.

On the morning of May 18, rumours began to circulate across social media over a potential return for Benzema to the French national team. Those rumours were confirmed when France manager Didier Deschamps included Benzema in his 26-man squad for the upcoming Euros, beating out the likes of Alexandre Lacazette, Anthony Martial and Nabil Fekir. To the untrained eye, it would seem a rather normal sequence of events — one of the best footballers on the planet called up to serve his country in the biggest international tournament of the year. To the insatiable football addict, news of Benzema’s return to the national team would garner the same reaction as an alien spaceship crashing into the Empire State Building. It was a mere two months ago when the well-connected, reliable French journalist Julian Laurens published an article on ESPN titled “Why Karim Benzema won’t represent France anytime soon despite brilliance at Real Madrid.”

Born in Lyon to Algerian parents, Benzema quickly ascended the youth ranks for Lyon and France, playing alongside Samir Nasri, Jérémy Ménez and Hatem Ben Arfa as part of the famed “Génération 1987” that won the 2004 UEFA Under-17 Championship. Such was his promise at a young age that the Algerian Football Federation attempted to poach him away from France, but Benzema remained assured, telling RMC in December 2006: “Algeria is my parents’ country and it is in my heart, but football-wise, I will only play for the French national team.”

He made his senior debut under Les Bleus manager Raymond Domenech on March 28, 2007, converting a free-kick from Nasri to lead France to a 1-0 victory against Austria. A sensational season at Lyon that saw him provide 31 goals and 10 assists in all competitions and lead Les Gones to their seventh straight title prompted Domenech to include the 20-year-old in his squad for the 2008 Euros, but he struggled to convince as France were eliminated in the group stage. His perceived arrogant attitude led to criticism from several veterans such as William Gallas and Claude Makélélé, but he continued to be a regular squad member and a talisman in attack for Lyon, prompting Real Madrid to sign him on a six-year contract and fork out an initial fee of €35 million in the summer of 2009.

The level of competition proved a tall mountain to climb at his new club, with Real Madrid manager Manuel Pellegrini preferring Gonzalo Higuaín at centre forward and the local press likening his performances to that of Nicolas Anelka, who left Madrid after just one year after struggling to fit into his new environment, learn the language and cope with the demands. In fact, Barcelona had reportedly agreed on a deal to sign him from Lyon in the spring of 2008 for a fee of €30 million but reneged on the transfer after the Director of Football Txiki Begiristain travelled to visit his family in the working-class suburb of Bron. They were disturbed by his entourage as well as his troublesome background, and believed he would have a similar adaptation to that of Anelka in Madrid, and pulled out of the deal. Benzema failed to make France’s preliminary 30-man squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup squad, as Les Bleus finished last in their group and even staged a squad mutiny against Domenech in the wake of his decision to send Anelka home without even consulting the players; Anelka reportedly told Domenech, “Go fuck yourself, you son of a whore,” and refused to apologize.

Benzema himself has never been stranger to controversy himself, and in April 2010, he was accused of having sex with underage prostitute Zahia Dehar when she was 16 years old — his France teammate Franck Ribéry, meanwhile, allegedly flew her out to Munich and solicited her for sex a year later. Both players stood trial and faced the risk of three years in prison as well as a fine of €45,000, but on January 30, 2014, they were acquitted on the basis that Dehar had lied about her age. Dehar became a national celebrity in the wake of the scandal, befriending prominent fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld and establishing herself as a luxury lingerie designer, whilst Ribéry would go on to form a dynamic duo in attack with Arjen Robben at Bayern Munich and amass 16 goals in 81 appearances for Les Bleus. Benzema, on the other hand, returned to the national team under new manager Laurent Blanc, who sought to build his attack around the Madrid striker

In Spain, Benzema commenced the 2010/11 season as a benchwarmer but took advantage of a back injury to Higuaín and established his place in the team under José Mourinho, scoring 10 goals in 8 matches from February to March and finishing as the club’s second top scorer behind Cristiano Ronaldo. Things began to turn around for him for club and country as he helped spur Madrid to their first league title in four years the following season, leading France in scoring during the qualification phase for the 2012 Euros and beating out Hugo Lloris and Eric Abidal for the France Football French Player of the Year. After taking a 1-1 draw against England on the opening matchday, Benzema provided two assists to lead France to a 2-0 victory against tournament co-hosts Ukraine, but he was unable to prevent his side from getting eliminated at the Round of 16 stage to eventual champions Spain. Blanc would step down at the end of the tournament, with ex Marseille manager Didier Deschamps taking charge.

France finished second to Spain in their qualifying group for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, with Benzema undergoing a goal drought that lasted a total of 1,222 minutes before finally breaking his duck in a friendly against Australia. One month later, Benzema scored a crucial goal against Ukraine to equalize on aggregate after Ukraine won the first leg 2-0; Les Bleus would go on to book their ticket for the tournament as Mamadou Sakho converted Ribéry’s cross in the 72nd minute to avoid becoming the first France team in 20 years to miss out on football’s most prestigious competition. They kicked off their tournament in Porto Alegre as Benzema scored a brace in a 3-0 evisceration of Honduras, while he grabbed another goal in the following 5-2 victory against Switzerland in the final group stage match. France narrowly advanced past Nigeria to set up a date with Germany at the Maracanã, but once again, they were eliminated by the eventual victors as an early goal from Mats Hummels gave the victory to Die Mannschaft. Having been awarded the rights to host the tournament, France automatically sealed progression to the 2016 Euros and as such merely competed in friendlies over the next two years with Benzema grabbing a brace in a 4-0 victory over Armenia on October 8, 2015; it would prove his final goal for France for at least five-and-a-half years.

On November 5, 2015, Benzema was placed under formal investigation for complicity in attempted blackmail and participation in a criminal conspiracy. He reportedly had an exchange with French international Mathieu Valbuena on October 5, when he pressed Valbuena about his role in a sex video featuring him and another woman that had been purloined from his mobile phone. Axel Angot as well as Mustapha Zouaoui and Younès Houass attempted to extort unspecified favours from Valbuena in exchange for not releasing the video; rather than play ball, Valbuena went to the police, who placed the suspects under phone taps. With their first method failing, the gang approached Karim Zenati, a long-time friend of Benzema and a man with convictions for armed theft and drug dealing. Zenati agreed to use his cozy relationship with the Real Madrid striker to get the message through to Valbuena, with Benzema approaching the then Lyon midfielder during a national team training session at Clairefontaine.

The day after the conversation at Clairefontaine, Benzema called Zenati and revealed to his friend, “I said (to Valbuena): ‘If you want the video to be destroyed, my friend comes up to see you in Lyon and you sort it out face to face with him. I said to him: ‘I’m going to sort it out for you. You got to go see the guy. He’ll come. He’ll talk to you. I give you my word there’s no other copy. My role stops here. Now it’s my friend who takes over. He’s the one who knows the person with the video. Me, I don’t know him. So now if you want to sort this out, give me your number. I’ll pass it on and you sort it out with him.’

Just as France were finally managing to rid themselves of the ignominy from the mutiny in South Africa, a new scandal threatened to derail their squad harmony as well as the legal future of their top scorer, who found himself at risk of a minimum jail sentence of five years. Deschamps initially tried to give his striker the benefit of the doubt, but on April 13, 2016, the French Football Federation (FFF) announced that Benzema would not be picked for the upcoming Euros. This led to Benzema stating in an interview with Spanish newspaper Marca prior the tournament, “He has bowed to the pressure of a racist part of France. I do not know, therefore, whether it is a decision only for Didier because I’ve gotten along with him, with the president, everyone. I do not have a problem with anyone. I am with France and wish them well.” Not long after these comments, Deschamps’ holiday home in Concarneau was vandalized with the word “Raciste” being written on the outer wall.

Despite the controversy, France grinded out hard-fought victories over Romania and Albania to finish atop their group, before defeating the Republic of Ireland, Iceland and Germany to book their ticket to the Final, where they would lose to Portugal via a goal from late substitute Eder. Two years later, Benzema was left off the roster for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, prompting him to take aim at FFF president Noël Le Graët: “With all due respect, you’ve lost an opportunity to remain silent. I’ve discovered your true face, and this isn’t the one that said he appreciated me and wouldn’t discuss the subject of team selections!” Nevertheless, France’s players continued to fade out the noise and dominate the competition, blowing past Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium before defeating Croatia in the World Cup Final in Moscow.

When asked in October 2018 about the possibility of Benzema returning to the national team, Le Graët stated, “I have nothing against Karim. He has always behaved well when with the team. However, I think that it is over with Les Bleus for him — particularly since he has been declining in form for some time.” A year later, Le Graët told RMC, “I’ve never questioned his ability, but his time with the French national team is over.” In response, Benzema tweeted, “If you think I’m finished, let me play for one of the countries for which I’m eligible and we’ll see.” However, the fact that Benzema had already amassed 81 appearances for the French national team meant that switching over to Algeria and playing for The Desert Foxes was never a possibility; France would have to unilaterally revoke his passport in order for him to do so.

El Gato landed himself in even hotter water when he said on an Instagram Q&A that he was an F1 Car while his former teammate Olivier Giroud was merely a go-kart: “You can’t confuse an F1 car with a go-kart and I’m being kind. “I know I’m a Formula 1 car. It works because he’s there, that’s it. It’s not going to be spectacular. “ Griezmann and Mbappé get seen more while he rolls his sleeves up and does the dirty work. But does everyone like his game? I don’t know.”

Giroud started the 2018 FIFA World Cup on the bench before coming on for Antoine Griezmann in the 70th minute with Deschamps’ side in need of a goal following Mile Jedinak’s equalizer. France got their go-ahead goal in 10 minutes later as Paul Pogba combined with Kylian Mbappé before playing an audacious one-two with Giroud, who did masterfully well to hesitate and flick it into the direction of Pogba, whose shot ricocheted off Aziz Behich into the back of the net. From that point on, Giroud became a fixed piece in Deschamps’ starting eleven, spearheading the 4-2-3-1 and doing the dirty work to allow Mbappé and Griezmann to shine but failing to score a single goal in 546 minutes, registering more yellow cards (1) than shots on target in Russia (0). Nevertheless, at 34 years of age, the Chelsea striker is just eight goals away from surpassing Thierry Henry as the top scorer of the French national team. Giroud, to his credit, has been gracious and forgiving with regards to Benzema’s comments and Benzema has played off the tension, stating “Of course. Olivier, I saw him during the Chelsea match. We spoke, it was relaxed. He congratulated me for my goal,” in an interview with L’Equipe. “It was good vibes, it was cool. I have already played with him, it will be the same as before.”

While it may have appeared that the vandalism incident would permanently put an end to his opportunities of a recall under Deschamps, the ex Juventus manager met with Benzema and had a long, heart-to-heart discussion regarding his future. If Deschamps is willing to take a second chance on the Real Madrid talisman, it’s because he believes that Benzema has evolved as a person and a teammate since his last match for Les Bleus on October 8, 2015, that he won’t ruin or sour the team dynamic, that he will uplift rather than downplay his teammates, and that his presence will not be a distraction in the locker room. Moreover, it’s because he believes that Benzema will provide a unique profile and a fresh, new weapon in attack as the reigning world champions attempt to escape from a perilous Group of Death composed of Germany, Portugal and Hungary and win their first European Championship since 2000.

Zach Lowy is the co-creator of Breaking The Lines (@BTLVid) and a freelance soccer journalist for various websites such as BET Central, Soccer Laduma and Hudl Analysis. He is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese and is the host of the Cortalinhas podcast, a weekly podcast that discusses Portuguese football. Zach has accumulated a wealth of experience and knowledge in football and has written about various subjects for BET Central ranging from Barcelona's financial difficulties to the 'lost generation' of South Africa's Amajita class of 2009.

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