At the end of Real Madrid’s 2-0 victory against Atletico Madrid last week, Zinedine Zidane was asked to define Karim Benzema in a word. In the end, he needed two … and then, a few more. “The best,” Real Madrid’s manager said, pausing to add: “I’d describe him as a complete footballer. People talk about him a nine, a nine and a half, a 10. He’s a bit of everything. He’s a total football player.
“Anyone who loves football, anyone who likes it, likes Karim.”
That could, and maybe even should, have been the final word, the whole point of the whole thing. But people always want more, the desire to rank everything seemingly irresistible — and, alas, so often less a eulogy of the man chosen as a dismissal of the man not chosen — and a few days later, Zidane was asked if Benzema might actually be the best forward France has ever produced.
“For me, yes,” he said. “He’s the best, for sure. He’s been at Madrid a long time, played more than 500 games, and there are all the goals. In the end, what he has won speaks for itself.”
Maybe Zidane would say that. After all, he played with Stephane Guivarc’h. Ba-dum, tish! and all that.
Seriously, though — and, please, a little respect for a World Cup winner whose game and whose importance Benzema himself might have understood and appreciated better than the rest of us — Zidane is quite literally on Benzema’s side. He had just seen Benzema score two more goals to defeat Athletic Club in midweek. He is Benzema’s manager, and much more: He is his mate and his mentor, his champion, someone who has shared so much with him.
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It was some statement, one to start a fire. Hey, Zizou, Thierry Henry would like a word. And Jean Pierre Papin. And Eric Cantona. And World Cup winner Antoine Griezmann. And, if we’re talking Frenchmen in Spain, even Rene Petit, an engineer and a pioneer, a debutant at 14 and a three-time winner of the Copa del Rey. Raymond Kopaszewski would, too. “Kopa,” they called him — that and “Little Napoleon,” as if the actual Napoleon was a giant — and he won three European Cups with Real Madrid. He also won the Ballon d’Or in 1958, the same year that Just Fontaine scored 13 goals at the World Cup in Sweden. (He was French, too.)
Zidane knows that. Zidane knows, and actually, there’s a lot in what he said. Benzema has never won a World Cup. He doesn’t play for France — bonjour, Didier Deschamps! — and he never won the Ballon d’Or. Never really been close, in fact. Still less got on the podium four years running like Kopa. When people talk about the best strikers in the world, Benzema’s not often in the conversation.
And yet, he should be and if only for that reason, among many other reasons, it was worth saying. A gentle, or not so gentle, nudge. And why not? Why shouldn’t Benzema be there? Look at what he’s won, as Zidane said, even though Zidane knows very well that it’s not just about that. Three leagues and four European Cups. Four. Over 250 goals.
Some people will say ah, but he played for Real Madrid for 11 years, of course he won a lot. Of course he scored goals, and he didn’t even get that many. Look at Cristiano Ronaldo: Now that’s a lot of goals. Benzema never won the Pichichi. Not once in over a decade at the club that’s supposed to dominate, where scoring is a piece of cake.
Those people would be wrong. A simple one for starters: you don’t play for Real Madrid for 11 years if you’re not very, very good at football. And how do you think Ronaldo got all those goals? Benzema, that’s how.
Ok, that’s not entirely true, and it would be absurd to reduce Ronaldo to being the mere beneficiary of other men’s brilliance. But there is something in it. In some strange way, Benzema has always been counter-cultural while also being the ultimate conformist, a complementary component designed to bring the best out of others. An individualistic team man. He wore 10 a Lyon when he was more of a 9, and 9 at Madrid when he was more of a 10.
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Not long ago, Benzema was interviewed by Jorge Valdano on Spanish television. It was a fascinating, thoughtful, quietly undemonstrative discussion in which Benzema talks about his evolution as a footballer. There are many phases of Benzema, different incarnations, conditioned by the men around him. And by the women too — he says that when he was a kid, his mum would go in goal.
The shifts started early, from being the goalscorer in France to the provider at Madrid. He was still only 20 when he arrived, and Ronaldo had just turned up too. It wasn’t easy, but it worked eventually.
“I had this guy there who scored double, triple the goals, and so you adapt,” Benzema told Valdano. “I’m a football player so I say to myself ‘no worries, I’m going to leave behind that scoring goals idea and do what I have to do.’ I changed the way I played a lot. I changed to play with him.”
Ten years later, after Ronaldo left, he changed back.
The transformation can be overplayed — the selflessness, even subservience, the sacrifice in service to others and to the team, to make his role the sole explanation of everything. But for a long time, Benzema did play as facilitator as much as centre-forward, a man for whom most of what he did was for others. This applies to Ronaldo in particular, and there is deep respect and recognition in that. It’s not such an easy thing to do — see, for example, what Griezmann’s trying to do at Barcelona.
At times, Benzema’s role was to get out of the way. Yes, really: This was a man who made space by vacating it, at just the right moment, for others to occupy. He was the wing man for the men dashing in from the actual wings to score. It wasn’t so much that he could not score more goals — and by the way, his return was still very good — as that he should not. That was not what he was there for, even as people demanded that it should be.
As well as all that other stuff.
There is a moment in the interview when Benzema says that as far as his dad was concerned, “football was goals.” And nothing else. Some seasons, there weren’t as many of them as there might have been. Not as many as his dad demanded. “Now I can talk to him,” Benzema says. “He understands my football, what I do on the pitch. Now. Before, he didn’t.”
He could have been speaking for everyone. He probably was, in fact. There’s a very clear sense that Benzema feels misunderstood. That he almost embraces that identity, operating on a higher plane. If you don’t get it, you don’t get it. “I play football for the people who understand the game,” he has said. Now there is an appreciation that was not always there before. “I feel happy because people understand now,” he has said.
Now, he says, though that too can be exaggerated. It’s not simply everyone else who has been on a long voyage of discovery and conversion to Benzema’s footballing philosophy, taking too long to appreciate him. He has been on a journey, too.
It wouldn’t be true to suggest that Benzema has always been like he is now. Some of the doubts around him were real. Some of the challenges to his place in the team had some foundation. Some of them came from his own teammates. There was criticism, some of it justified. At times he did need protection; equally, at times he has lacked projection.
Quiet, Benzema has had defenders — and noisy, determined ones — but rarely spoken himself. Ask yourself this: How many interviews have you read? How many statements out of turn? In fact, here’s another one: He’s been at Madrid over a decade. How many times have you even heard rumours of a departure, even while there were rumours of other signings in his position? How many times have his renewals been even mentioned, still less played out in public?
There’s a lovely line from Athletic Club winger Alejandro Berenguer, when asked which Madrid player he likes. “Benzema,” the winger says. “He doesn’t make any noise, but he kills you.”
He does now, as well as all that other stuff. And look back on the career, the biggest moments, and there he is. His Champions League goal-scoring record bares favourable comparison with just about anyone’s. And how do you even classify what he did that night at the Calderon?
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Since the departure of Ronaldo, Benzema has had to take on greater responsibility for scoring, reverting back to a “number 9,” a role he’d left behind a decade ago. And while it was hard at first, he has, too.
Here’s a stat: In Zidane’s second spell as Madrid manager, Benzema has a higher percentage of Madrid’s goals than Ronaldo had in Zidane’s first spell in charge. Just under a third, in case you’re wondering. Last year he went over 20 goals, the league’s most decisive footballer. Had he been given the penalties, he would have been Pichichi (top scorer).
That has brought with it an appreciation not always there before; statistics help to win arguments and win people over. And, ultimately, goals decide everything. Including, don’t forget, games. It’s worth noting, again, that it’s not true Benzema has always been there and always been the same; it’s not true that those people are idiots who just didn’t know how to appreciate him before … although there are some of them, of course.
Benzema has changed, and not just because of the responsibilities or the goals. He is lighter than he was — extremely thin, in fact — and there’s a heightened awareness about him now, more even than before. There’s a quiet leadership as well, an assuredness about him. Maybe not playing for France has actually helped?
And then there’s just the joy, art and quality in his game. It was the glorious back-heeled assist at Espanyol — not one of the goals that took Madrid to the title — that made his season last year. “Sometimes things come to me,” he said. “That’s how I see football.”
“That’s Karim,” Zidane said.
Last week, Karim Benzema became the foreigner with the most appearances all time for Madrid, and he didn’t do it as his career wound down, limping to the line. He did it at 33, playing the best football of his career, on a level now where it is almost as if he was levitating. On a level that no Frenchman has ever reached, according to one Frenchman who probably has.