Benzema – a talisman for Real Madrid but a divisive figure in France

Three Espanyol defenders converged, like a band of policemen shadowing a slippery pickpocket, onto Karim Benzema, his shaved crown glistening under the lights, his imposing frame in Real Madrid’s turquoise green away shirt shining in the undulating wave of attention.

Benzema slipped out, then slipped in, veered closer to the nearest, unsuspecting defender, cushioned the lobbed pass with his right thigh, stuttered and stumbled as he chased the rebound, slunk his right shoulder a tad, as if shrugging a housefly off, he twisted the ball with the back of his right heel through the agape legs of the defender, Eduardo, towards the path of an onrushing, untracked Casemiro, who slammed the ball past the ball.

Such undefinable moments — a no-look, back-heeled, nut-megged assist — define the genius, the grandeur and mastery of Benzema, who in current form is arguably the best center forward in the world. So feels Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti, before he corrects himself. “Calling him a forward feels like it stops short to me. He’s a very complete player.”

The Frenchman’s case is too compelling to refute the manager’s claim. At this moment, Benzema inhabits the game’s pinnacle. He has just propelled Real Madrid to another La Liga crown; he has single-handedly steered them to the Champions League final. He is the second highest goal-scorer (323) for his storied club and its highest assist-maker (159). No forward has scored, across the top five leagues, as many goals as Benzema has this season. With just the Champions league final to ring in the closure, he has reeled out 44 goals in 44 games. Not just goals, but 14 assists too, and beyond the mortal stats and facts, he has conjured magic and moments, stirred joy and amazement, tearing away from the chasing pack, to breathe a rarefied air of his own.

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Some of those goals have been season-defining — the hat-tricks against PSG and Chelsea, the treble against Manchester City, that Panenka penalty against City, and that velvet-wrapped killer-pass for the Rodrygo goal, Benzema has been Madrid’s protagonist this season. He was the one-man slayer of City in Madrid — across 104 minutes, he maintained a pass accuracy of 90 per cent, retrieved the ball six times, won a penalty, scored a goal and racked up an assist.

For much of his career in Spain, he has been the provider, the facilitator, for Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. He uncomplainingly dispensed his duties — attestation of his versatility and adaptability too — and once the glitterati began to either depart or fade, Benzema rose to stake his claim in the pantheon of Madrid greats. This year, he has been their creator, destroyer and season-sustainer. A surgeon with a violin.

Or as his former manager Zinedine Zidane described poetically, “hostia”, literally meaning the communion water, but here used to describe a divine talent. “For people who like to watch football, Karim is a gift of God,” the legendary Frenchman, rarely prone to hyperbole, observed.

Benzema’s own explanation of his genius is simple, yet cryptic: “Sometimes things come from within me. It’s how I see football.”

At the top of his game

This season, he has operated at a higher than mortal, near immortal, level of genius. He has broken out of positional nomenclature. He is No.10 as well as No.9; not 9.5, not 9, not 10, not a bit-part, but two men at one time; the 10 and 9, the center forward, playmaker and even the striker. “I would define him as a total footballer,” Zidane observed.

Watch him up close and it is amazing how many moves don’t just end with him but start with him, too. Often it begins with a silken long pass, and before one realises, Benzema has drifted into an unmanned zone – he has a preternatural vision to find that without scanning or surveying – to receive the ball. Anything could happen from there; he could thread the pass through the most threadbare of gaps, split it through the most congested of human barricades, pierce through the most impenetrable of defences, slip it from the most delicate of angles, find the most improbable of colleague, or as he often does, slam it the past the flailing palms of the goalkeeper. The last, killer touch could be anything, a poke of his toes, a glance of his head, the instep, the out-step, the lace, the back of his heel, the side of his boot.

Just his whim, his design, his instinct. There is steel; there is silk. There is spontaneity; there is wisdom of experience.

Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema controls the ball during a Media Opening day training session in Madrid, Spain, Tuesday, May 24, 2022. Real Madrid will play Liverpool in Saturday’s Champions League soccer final in Paris. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Beneath it all burns the spirit of Madrid, or Madrid-ism. Ancelotti, who has managed him in two separate boots, says no one defines Madrid-ism more than Benzema. Madrid-ism with all its panache and arrogance, all its ruthlessness and bravado, all its sham and style, all its individualism and ambition.

Yet, he could have easily been spotted in the ubiquitous purple and red stripes of Madrid’s bitter rivals, Barcelona.

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In May 2008, Barcelona’s sporting director Txiki Begiristain visited the creaky two-storey apartment, where Benzema stayed with his parents and seven other siblings, in Bron-Terraillon, a rough suburb on the outskirts of Lyon. Like many of France’s banlieues — built in the 1960s mostly for North African immigrant workers and their families — the locale is seen as a hotbed of crime. When Lyon acquired him in his early teens, Benzema’s mother’s only request was to keep her son away from the grimy alleys of Terraillon.

Two days before the visit, Begiristain watched Benzema, of Algerian descent like Zidane, in a game and left heavily impressed. A deal was verbally agreed with his agent and one of the newspapers carried a front-page story of Barcelona signing the 20-year-old French artiste.

Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, right, and Betis’ goalkeeper Rui Silva during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Real Madrid and Betis at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain, Friday, May 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Jose Breton)

But according to Jose Luis Guerrero’s book Benzema: La Clase en El Area, Begiristain and some of the other officials left his home unimpressed. One of the reasons was that he did not make any eye contact, “constantly evaded their gaze.” Even for the meeting, he came with “suspicious-looking people,” the book narrates. A further background check — the reports were worrying — Barcelona backed out of the deal at the last moment, “for the fear of Benzema not blending with the club’s culture.”

Next year, around the same time, another visitor knocked at the doors of his humble apartment. It was Real Madrid’s all-powerful president, and in an hour, a €35 million deal was struck. The next week, he was unveiled at the Bernabeu. A month later, Cristiano Ronaldo joined too. Together, they would restore Madrid’s glory in the Champions League, which they kissed four times in five years. He never spared torment on his old suits whenever they duelled — scoring (some audacious back-heels and chips) and assisting on 11 instances apiece in 22 fixtures. He relishes the European stage, netting 74 goals for Madrid, just behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on the all-time Champions League goal-scorers’ chart (86).

It’s no exaggeration that Benzema had vindicated the trust of Perez, but he did not quite shake off the old connections, and frequently landed in trouble with the law-enforcers. His childhood coach Robert Valette once told RTE: “He started making lots of money, and his old friends were still there, hanging around. He didn’t buy a fancy place. He went back to the ‘hood. He never cut the cord.”

His two closest friends are Karim Zenati and Karim Djaziri, who is now his agent. Zenati has served a rigorous prison term for armed robbery, supermarket heists and drug peddling. When he was released, Benzema employed him at the Best of Benzema, a company he set up in 2008 to protect his image rights. He, along with Benzema, were the four accused in the Valbuena case. They allegedly blackmailed national teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex-tape. After six years of trial – he was excluded from the French team during the entire span —a judge handed Benzema a one-year suspended jail term and ordered him to pay a €75,000 fine.

“Karim is faithful — faithful to his friends. Now, of course he has been a victim of this loyalty, but they are the rules of the game when you come from the ghetto,” Valette would say.

There were other accusations and brushes with the law. He was fined €18,000 for over-speeding (at 135 mph) in Madrid. He and fellow French forward Franck Ribery were investigated for paying an underage prostitute. He refused to pay maintenance to his maternal grandmother after agreeing (it was later proved wrong). He didn’t sing the French national anthem, because, “it is a call to go to war and I don’t like that.” Zidane and Michel Platini never sang the anthem either, but only Benzema’s loyalty was questioned, only Benzema was painted a villain. There are other gripes too —he has not done anything to uplift his ‘hood. He does not do charity; does not campaign against drug abuse; he hangs out with dodgy friends.

Punching bag

Far-right shift have latched onto him with relish. Days after a secondary-school teacher was by an Islamist terrorist, a far-right activist tweeted: “I can’t wait for the courts to take an interest in the financing of the mosques in Bron [the region Benzema is from],” with the picture of Benzema hugging an imam. Marine Le Pen, head of France’s National Front, once spoke on television: “Benzema ought never to have entered the French team. I think he is someone who has repeatedly expressed contempt for France.” She had earlier tweeted, responding to Benzema’s claim that coach Didier Deschamps had bowed to the pressure of a racist part of France: “Let him play in ‘the country’ if he is not happy!”

Arguably the best French footballer of his generation, he is loathed in Paris but loved in Madrid. His extroverted demeanour has not facilitated a remoulding of image. His silence was often misconstrued as guilt. He made no conscious effort for an image makeover, though, reportedly some of his friends advised him to remove his beard and smile more often so that he becomes more loveable for the masses. He did not.

But in an interview with MARCA, he defended himself: “They criticize me a lot in France, me, my family and those around me, but if I were a bad person, badly advised, I wouldn’t be where I am now. Five years at Lyon, seven at Madrid, winning titles…”

Perhaps, that is how he would be remembered — a legend for Madrid and Lyon and a villain for France. But there is little doubt that he has been the best player in Europe this season.

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