Where does Karim Benzema rank amongst the best of his generation?

Where does Karim Benzema rank amongst the best of his generation?

Illustration by Sachin Sing. View more on Instagram and Behance.

A fleet of Lamborghinis and Porches line up on a tarmac alongside a grounded private jet. Cut from a scene out of a Floyd Mayweather Jr vacation video, the doors of each car invitingly stretch ajar, patiently waiting to boost the ego of a few select individuals fortunate enough to climb inside.

As your eyes peer to the right of the photo, a man clad in baggy, jogger sweats, hat and vintage Allen Iverson jersey stands between the automobiles with arms extended and full of swagger. Further exploration of his Instagram feed includes recent photos of dinners with world-famous musicians and jet ski rides atop waters so pristine your reflection nods back in shameless approval.

Life is good for Karim Benzema, or at least that’s the impression he would like to emanate to the world. Since winning his third consecutive Champions League title, and fourth overall with Real Madrid, his summer holidays have taken him from the beaches of Turks and Caicos to the concrete jungle of New York City. However, one stamp that is conspicuously absent from the pages of his passport is that of Russia.

It’s now been almost three years since Benzema last slipped on the shirt of Les Blues. Once a bonafide starter and perhaps France’s most recognisable star, his omission from the national team at the 2018 World Cup was just the latest extension of his prolonged exile.

The overlords of this exodus have been France coach Didier Deschamps and the president of the French Football Federation, Noël Le Graët. Publically, much of the reasoning given for their decision has centred around the now infamous Mathieu Valbuena sex tape scandal. In November 2015, Benzema was arrested by French police for his alleged role in blackmailing and trying to extort money from his France teammate at the time.

As the story goes, Karim Zenati, a childhood friend of Benzema, somehow got a hold of the tape featuring Valbuena and a woman who just so happened to not be his wife. Shortly after, Valbuena began to receive anonymous calls and messages from the extorters who told him they were in possession of the video and would release it to the world if he didn’t pay them in the region of £100,000.

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Benzema spoke to Valbuena, allegedly telling him he had seen the video and knew his friend was in possession of it, so the best thing Valbuena could do was “go to Lyon and speak to [Zenati] about it.” This account was corroborated after transcripts of Benzema and Zenati’s phone conversation discussing this leaked in 2015. While the evidence appeared to be damning, Benzema was later cleared of any criminal charges. Despite this, the court of public opinion in France has not been quite so forgiving, with over two-thirds of the country agreeing that he should be kept away from the national team.

The main players involved in this dispute have floated their various theories, from racism and Islamophobia to Benzema being a toxic presence for the team and a poor sportsman. Like the truth, who Karim Benzema is, and truly wants to be, has always muddled somewhere in the middle.

 

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His French story reads like many others with Algerian roots. While Karim Benzema’s mother was born and raised in Lyon, his father immigrated to France from the same part of north-east Algeria as the parents of Zinedine Zidane. As the sixth of nine children, Benzema’s family ultimately found refuge in Terraillon, a notorious district in Bron, a suburb on the outskirts of Lyon that sits beyond the lines of the city’s metro and many of its job opportunities.

Ripped from a page out of a manifesto on communist architecture, Benzema’s childhood home sits amongst a maze of identical lego-type tower blocks all standing between 10 and 15 stories high. Each is painted in its distinctive and lifeless shade of grey or muddied yellow; a tactic long used as a way of promoting equality amongst low-income residents. These social housing projects mostly sprung up around France in the 1960s, as waves of migrant workers and their families emigrated from Algeria in an effort to evade the violence consuming the country during the War of Independence.

Even before the war, the assimilation of people from France’s major settler colony into society had always been a struggle. The 1947 Statute of Algeria granted Algerian men French citizenship, however, they were often viewed as subjects who were ethnically distinct and undesirable to mainstream French culture. Living conditions were often appalling for many.

Although citizens, many were placed at the end of the queue for social housing, and local authorities openly discriminated against them. These practices segregated much of the Algerian population to the outskirts of major cities and financially rewarding jobs, generating a deep feeling of abandonment and resentment.

In the face of such ostracisation, families forming the bulk of Les Banlieues constructed a bond built on strength and perseverance. Loyalty in these parts is a currency that is oftentimes priceless, making old friendships tough to ignore and even harder to sever.

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It was on these very streets that Benzema would discover the game of football. His obsession to play would even extend to the hallways of his home, leaving his mother exacerbated in her futile attempts to get him to stop. Amongst all the racket, his family were ultimately happy to see him find something that could seize his attention away from the more sinister side of his neighbourhood.

Benzema’s chubby appearance growing up was partially to blame for his acute shyness, yet football would prove to be his most powerful form of expression. By the age of eight, his game had shown enough promise to earn him an invitation to join the local side SC Bron Terraillon Perle. Nicknamed Coco by friends and coaches alike, his big break would come after scoring two goals in an under-10 match against the Olympique Lyonnais youth academy. The city’s largest and most recognizable club registered an interest in Benzema soon after, and just a year later, signed him to officially join their youth ranks.

 

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Despite challenges with income and nefarious outside influence, Benzema’s parents were steadfast in their determination to protect their sons future. While many of his friends found refuge after school on Terraillon’s perilous street corners, Benzema largely retreated to his house after football training. Nevertheless, the paper-thin walls of his bedroom did little to conceal the noise from outside temptations.

Deep down, Benzema had always thought about what and, more importantly, who he was missing. Olympique Lyonnais eventually recognised the dangers and felt the best way to guard their prime asset was to enrol him at Tola Vologe, a boarding house for its academy players.

Hawkish supervision and a strict bedtime curfew kept Benzema in tune with the mission at hand. Football was prioritised and he thrived in return. At under-16 level, he scored 38 goals in the domestic league for youth players of the age in France. When he wasn’t piercing the net with alarming frequency, he was seen roaming the sidelines of the Stade de Gerland, working as a ballboy at first-team matches.

Ahead of the 2004/05 season, Benzema was promoted to the club’s reserve team, where despite only playing during the autumn campaign, he scored a team-high 10 goals as they finished second in their group. First-team manager Paul Le Guen had seen enough from the 16-year-old, promoting him to the highest echelon of French football for the second half of the season.

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As is customary with new players who arrive at Lyon, the baby-faced striker had to stand up and introduce himself to his new teammates, which at that time included stars such as Michael Essien, Florent Malouda, Éric Abidal and Sylvain Wiltord. In front of some of his city’s heroes, the timid kid languished in finding the right words to say. Subjected to jokes and laughter, Benzema’s disposition abruptly flipped, before he declared: “Do not laugh, I’m here to take your place.”

Benzema’s professional debut would arrive in January 2005 against Metz and he wouldn’t disappoint, appearing as a substitute before providing the assist for Lyon’s second goal. The club soon rewarded him with his first professional contract, a three-year deal accompanied by the biggest cheque his family had ever seen. Expectations were understandably raised, yet Lyon’s continued hoarding of the Ligue 1 trophy afforded Benzema the precious luxury of patience.

Two nondescript seasons would follow, and now at the age of 18, Benzema was permitted to leave the boarding house that was so instrumental in his ascension. Benzema had never lost contact with the friends he grew up with despite all of the time away. Club officials privately worried about his decision not to relocate and instead go back home to Bron. Nevertheless, Lyon would have to see their investment through and the 2007/08 season would see them push all their chips to the centre of the table.

 

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Florent Malouda, Éric Abidal and Sylvain Wiltord would all depart the club that summer. Benzema was handed Malouda’s lofty number 10 shirt and was inserted into the lead striker role of the five-time defending French champions. Most players his age would have struggled with such a lofty burden, yet Benzema ruthlessly smiled in its face.

He scored 31 goals in 51 games, including a league-leading 20, helping Lyon win their first ever double. He was subsequently named the Ligue 1 Player of the Year and was also shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or eventually won by Cristiano Ronaldo.

In April of that season, Barcelona’s sporting director, Txiki Begiristain, had flown to Lyon to watch the Frenchman play. Enamoured with what he saw, he contacted Lyon owner Jean-Michel Aulas about his availability. A slew of back-and-forth negotiations would eventually lead to an agreed fee of €30m.

Despite their sporting director’s unmitigated belief, others in the Barcelona hierarchy weren’t so convinced, harbouring doubts about the striker’s ability to adapt to life in Spain. There had been whispers that Benzema’s introverted nature mirrored that of Nicolas Anelka, another talented French striker who struggled mightily to integrate during his lone season at Real Madrid.   

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Begiristain was advised to get a better idea of who Benzema truly was before any deal could progress. This reconnaissance mission would require a trip to Benzema’s family home in Bron. There, Begiristain was able to observe the social circle Benzema kept around and he too began to cultivate his own reservations. After a final consultation with manager Frank Rijkaard, Begiristain reached out to inform Lyon that Barcelona were pulling the plug on the deal.

A little over a year later, another convoy on behalf of one of the biggest clubs in the world would pull up to the same modest house in Bron. Relentless in his quest to right the wrongs of his first presidential tenure, Florentino Pérez and his billion-dollar pockets approached the doorway with only one possible outcome in mind: he was taking Karim Benzema back to Madrid with him.

 

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The Frenchman was their fourth player presentation in the span of nine frenetic days. Over 20,000 people eagerly waited inside the Santiago Bernabéu to greet their new €35m striker. The three players presented before him – Kaká, Raúl Albiol and Cristiano Ronaldo – had already chosen all the available shirt numbers. The 21-year-old gingerly approached the podium in a numberless kit, clapping anxiously amidst the delirious and anticipatory fan base: “I am very happy to play in the same club as my idols, Zidane and Ronaldo. Thank you Florentino Pérez,” he said in limited Spanish.

Eventually granted Arjen Robben’s vacated number 11, Karim Benzema was just the latest addition to the most expensive transfer window that world had ever seen. A total of €257m had been shelled out by Pérez that summer. It was the ultimate sign of respect to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona – although Real Madrid’s president would never admit it – who had just come off making Spanish football history in winning its first treble. Supporters of Los Blancos had felt powerless in the face of such supremacy, however belief now coursed through the footballing temple on Paseo de la Castellana.

Life in Spain wouldn’t get off to the best of starts for the Frenchman. In late November, Benzema began appearing mainly as a substitute as manager Manuel Pellegrini preferred Gonzalo Higuaín in the lead striker role. To coincide with his benching, he was also being criticised by the media for what they perceived as a difficulty in settling in as he had struggled to learn Spanish to a level they deemed acceptable. 

Los Merengues would finish LaLiga with an astonishing 96 points and 102 goals scored. In any other league of humans, this would’ve seen them walk to the title. But they were playing against extraterrestrials from Barcelona, who would play a huge part in Real going trophyless. Higuaín led the club with 27 goals in the league, relegating Benzema to a throng of cameo appearances and even more doubts over his quality.

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Controversy off the pitch would also follow him, as four members of the French national team were investigated for their roles as clients in a prostitute ring operated inside of a Paris nightclub, with some of the women allegedly underage. The charges against Benzema were eventually dismissed, yet the distraction was rumoured to be chief among the reasons he was not selected for France’s 2010 World Cup squad in South Africa. It proved to be just the latest roadblock in a now-floundering career. Indeed, hopes of a reprieve appeared to only be thwarted with the appointment of José Mourinho.

 

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“If you don’t have a dog to go out hunting with you, and you have a cat, you have to go out with a cat. You’ll catch less, but you’ll catch something all the same,” Mourinho told the press.

The words incensed Benzema. Higuaín had just suffered a serious back injury and Real Madrid’s new number nine would finally get his long-awaited opportunity to start. Conversely, he was the joke at the expense of his new manager; degraded in front of the world when it was support he so badly needed.

In a Canal+ documentary in France, Benzema touched on what was said during their private, and intense one-hour meeting: “I said what I had to say to him. I am somewhat timid but if you are going to laugh at me, you’re going to have a confrontation with me. When things are talked about, everything goes better.”

From that point on, Benzema’s career in Madrid began to soar. He scored 26 goals across all competitions as he helped finally guide Real past Barcelona for a trophy; capturing the Copa del Rey for the 18th time in club history. With the guidance of Zidane and the watchful eye of Mourinho, Benzema would dedicate himself to transforming his body that off-season. He ventured to Merano, Italy, to attend a high-performance clinic where a rigorous training regiment would see him shed eight kilograms.

The results that season would be extraordinary. He bagged 32 goals and provided 19 assists across all competitions as Los Blancos won the league for the first time since 2008. The next six seasons would only see the Frenchman add to his mushrooming trophy cabinet. Four Champions League titles would come to define the era, while he also steadily climbed up Real Madrid and Europe’s record books. Presently, he sits seventh in the most goals scored for the club and is joint fourth with Ruud van Nistelrooy for most in the Champions League. 

Unexpectedly, Benzema is now the last man standing from Real Madrid’s historic summer of 2009. Whether that continues to be the case is a different story entirely, as a possible move away from the Bernabéu continues to pick up steam. Over his nine years in the Spanish capital, Benzema has been a lightning rod for debate. His critics bemoan his lack of competence and occasional poor finishing in front of goal; aghast with a player who fails to excel in the one department that is expected of a forward: scoring goals.

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It seemed to all come to a head last season as the Frenchman managed to find the back of the net just five times in the league. The frustration among certain segments of the Bernabéu would reach palpable levels. Showers of whistles would come cascading down, oftentimes so uncomfortable that even Cristiano Ronaldo had to implore the fans to stop.

This was not an accident. Ronaldo was one of Benzema’s staunchest defenders over their long and fruitful partnership. What he recognised – yet what so many seemed to simply miss or ignore – was just how much Benzema had to adapt his game to mask the transformation of Ronaldo’s.

The Portuguese’s advancing age and subsequent diminishment of pace forced him to play more centrally. With less space to navigate, Benzema began to drop closer to the midfield in more of a number 10 role. His link-up play became imperative to the collective, sacrificing personal glory in exchange for trophies. Just in the last season of LaLiga, he created 37 chances, maintained an 82 percent pass accuracy rate, and also bettered Ronaldo’s successful take-on percentage by eight percent.

With Ronaldo and his seemingly endless cache of goals now departed, the most treasured part of Benzema’s game has appeared to have gone with him. Belief in his ability to again adapt and reclaim his prowess in front of goal is scant at best. Now at the age of 30, it is likely that the glorious statistical seasons of years past are done and dusted, yet the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet continue to make him a sympathetic figure.

Nevertheless, a club of Real Madrid’s ambition do not operate in the feelings business. They are in the winning and entertainment business. That blueprint has made the Frenchman’s future at club level more cloudy than ever – and it’s hardly any clearer back home.

Beyond the pageantry and all of the unity now being espoused with France’s World Cup win, the prospect for his redemption has never seemed further out of reach. Time has an innate ability to heal all wounds, but the longevity in an athletes hourglass always will empty to the other side. Younger stars have now stepped forward, proving they can carry the mantle of French excellence now and into the future.

A legacy is maybe all that Benzema has left to leave behind, as admirers of the sport of football will be the ones tasked with the debates and dissections. When that day ultimately arrives, what will he make us remember? The answer is more obscure than ever.

By Justin Sherman @JShermOfficial

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