Karim Benzema: How striker stepped out of Cristiano Ronaldo & Gareth Bale’s shadows
It was the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos who once remarked that « all overnight success takes about 10 years ». Real Madrid’s number nine, Karim Benzema, would almost certainly concur.
Now in his 12th season with Los Blancos, the footballing world is finally waking up to what Real Madrid have known all along, that the 33-year-old Frenchman is one of the world’s great players.
When Real Madrid face Liverpool in the Champions League on Tuesday he has the chance to take centre stage. It is the first meeting between the teams since the 2018 final, when Benzema was more than prepared to play a supporting (but crucial) role to help the likes of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Not any more. Since the departure of Ronaldo to Juventus and Bale’s loan to Tottenham Hotspur, Benzema has finally become his side’s main man, its focal point.
He is no longer Real Madrid’s best-kept secret.
Just how good is Benzema?
Only four players have scored more goals at Real Madrid than Benzema’s tally of 273 – Ronaldo (450), Raul (323), Alfredo Di Stefano (308) and Santillana (290). And there is every indication that if he carries on at the present rate for another couple of seasons he will end up second only to Ronaldo.
There are only three players who have scored more goals in the history of the Champions League – Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski – and he has been in the starting line-up in four victorious Champions League finals.
This season he has scored 24 goals in all competitions, including 11 in the past 10 games.
But what has really stood out has been the importance of these goals, breaking the deadlock against Getafe, Valencia and Celta Vigo, earning a vital point against league leaders Atletico Madrid and scoring twice to secure a late comeback win against Elche.
Bron, 10km east of Lyon city centre, is a rundown, deprived area containing masses of inadequate 1960s-built social housing with a largely immigrant population, many of whom fled the violence during Algeria’s war of independence. It does not feature prominently in the « must see » section of any of the guide books about France’s second city.
But for all its difficulties and the work and social prejudices suffered by its inhabitants, this was the home, school and playground of a young Benzema, one of nine children raised by French national parents of Algerian descent.
He swiftly developed a love for football and was spotted by Lyon after scoring twice in a match against their under-10 academy side while playing for his local team Bron Terraillon SC.
In such places are built the strong and priceless bonds that sustain you throughout your life and serve as a constant reminder of where you are from.
« My family inspires me, » he would say years later. « The values and morals my parents gave me helped me stay the same person. My faith [Benzema is Muslim] also helps me to be focused every day. It brings me benefits and it’s my strength for me, my family, as well as for my work – for literally everything. »
As a child his footballing inspiration was the Brazilian Ronaldo, a player whose Real tally he has gone on to surpass by 169 goals and counting. « It’s because of him that I fell in love with football. He has all the qualities that a player dreams to have, he inspired me to challenge myself. »
But the familiarity of the barrio was fraught with danger, which meant that at the age of 14 he opted to live at the Lyon academy so he could be sure to avoid the many temptations of the district that could only hinder his career.
Rising swiftly through the ranks he received his major break when then manager Paul le Guen called him up to the first-team squad, which at that time included Michael Essien, Sylvain Wiltord, Florent Malouda and Eric Abidal.
Frequently ridiculed by team-mates because of his shyness when forced to stand up and speak to them as part of the learning process, he told them: « Do not laugh, I’m here to take your place. »
He made his debut aged 18, and four Ligue 1 titles and 66 goals in 148 games later, Real Madrid came calling.
Florentino Perez has only once made a specific trip abroad to persuade a player to join the club and that was for Benzema. Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were interested in signing him and were prepared to pay him and the club more in order to secure the deal.
Perez thought he spotted in Benzema what he had seen in Zinedine Zidane and visited the player and his family at their home, where he managed to convince him to make the move to Spain. It did help that Benzema did not fancy heading to Manchester and preferred a team that was considered not only successful, but also of legendary status among his family and friends.
Ronaldo pep talk and problems with Mourinho
Two months after arriving at the Bernabeu, Benzema was approached by the also recently-arrived Cristiano Ronaldo. « Listen Karim, this isn’t France, it’s Real Madrid and if you want to play here then you have to work harder, » the Portuguese told him.
Benzema would always do what was asked of him, and Ronaldo – an obsessive trainer – left him in no doubt he had to do more.
At that point, Benzema was homesick and unhappy, hated the food that he found too greasy and was struggling to hold down a starting place ahead of Gonzalo Higuain. He got his chance when the Argentine was injured but was deeply hurt when manager Jose Mourinho announced publicly that « without Higuain we have a problem ».
And then to add insult to injury, he went on: « If you don’t have a dog to go hunting with but you have a cat, then you’ve got to take the cat with you, because you can’t go by yourself. »
Benzema answered in the best way he possibly could and by the end of that season had scored 25 goals in 1,800 minutes played, a return of a goal every 72 minutes. He scored 13 goals in his last 15 games, six in the Champions League and five in the Spanish Cup that Madrid would end up lifting.
But Mourinho remained unconvinced and he would not start in either the 2011 Copa del Rey final win over Barcelona or in either legs of the Champions League semi-final against their bitter rivals that same season.
Soon after he would confront Mourinho in a team hotel, going to his room and asking why he wasn’t playing as much as he felt he should. It turned out to be the best thing he could have done. Up to that point Mourinho had felt he lacked the drive and the guts to fight.
The Portuguese manager realised for the first time that the quiet, trouble-free, low-maintenance player he had available to him was up for the battle. From that moment on he earned Mourinho’s respect and his place in the starting line-up for all the major games.
Relationship with Ancelotti and Zidane
Benzema would eventually learn to respect what Mourinho did for Real Madrid but – not unnaturally perhaps – never particularly warmed to him personally. The same cannot be said about two of the managers who followed him, his immediate replacement Carlo Ancelotti and then Zinedine Zidane, who succeeded Rafael Benitez.
Ancelotti was the first coach to rely heavily on Benzema. « How lucky am I to have Karim? » he once said. « Without him, nothing would work. »
Most notably, of course, that meant the BBC (Bale, Benzema, Cristiano), the partnership that won the Champions League and Copa del Rey in the 2013-14 season and the Uefa Super Cup and Fifa Club World Cup in 2014. Privately, Ancelotti has always said the piece that kept that unit functioning was the Frenchman, whose understanding of the game and generosity made his team-mates better.
The player is unreserved in his praise for current boss Zidane, who has always supported him, especially throughout the troubles he has experienced off the pitch recently.
Zidane came from the same background, the same side of the tracks as Benzema. When, in a recent interview, Benzema claimed with a wry smile that Zidane and he « spoke the same language », he was clearly saying much more than that they both conversed in French.
« For me, he is like an older brother, » he said. « Off the pitch he is always there to give me advice. »
Zidane is equally fulsome in his appreciation of the Frenchman. « Benzema is always there when you need him most, » he said. « For me, he is the best forward in the history of French football. »
Their relationship goes back many years and it was on Zidane’s recommendation that Perez worked so hard to complete his signing in 2009. If Zidane is Benzema’s greatest fan, then Real Madrid’s president is not far behind him.
While those in his own country have abandoned him in the face of allegations he was involved in attempted blackmail, Real Madrid and, in particular Zidane and Perez, have unhesitatingly backed Benzema all the way.
Zidane’s unconditional respect and support for Benzema has, however, led to repercussions for his ongoing relationship with some of Real Madrid’s other stars like Vinicius Jnr and, in particular, Bale. The coach’s effusive praise for Benzema was in stark contrast to the cold indifference shown to the Welshman.
The post-Ronaldo era
While many at Real Madrid may feel his newly obtained and long overdue rise to prominence has had much to do with Ronaldo’s move to Juventus, Benzema has always been far more sanguine about the whole thing, although he did admit that « the one thing I would say is that Cristiano leaving has allowed me to play a different role in the side ».
He added: « Bale was a bullet, Cristiano had many, many goals in him and I was the piece that joined us together.
« He [Ronaldo] was scoring 50 or 60 goals a year and I had to adapt myself to his game because of that. He is one of the best players in the world and I was happy to be at his side.
« But because I was wearing the number nine people were expecting me to score goals, although what I am is a number nine with the soul of a number 10. »
Controversy off the pitch
World-class players very often gain global recognition because of their exploits with their countries in tournaments like the World Cup and European Championship rather than with their respective clubs
Perhaps one of the reasons why Benzema’s undoubted talents have not been appreciated or acknowledged by many outside Madrid is because he has been banned from playing for his country since November 2015 because of his alleged involvement in attempted blackmail on French player Mathieu Valbuena involving a sex tape.
Benzema has denied any wrongdoing and his legal team have denounced the ongoing legal proceedings as « absurd ». He is due to stand trial on a charge of conspiracy to attempt blackmail in October.
Following the allegation the relevant authorities made their stance clear, with the then French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announcing: « A great athlete should be exemplary. If he is not, he has no place in the France team. »
That probably cost Benzema a World Cup winner’s medal, while also calling time on an international career which had already seen him gain 81 caps.
Amid allegations that the striker was the victim of racism and Islamophobia, a poll taken at the time said that more than two-thirds of the country agreed with the decision of coach Didier Deschamps and French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet to ban him from playing for the national side.
In the end he watched the World Cup final in Lyon with his family
« Because I’m close to [Raphael] Varane I was happy, » Benzema said. « I would have loved to be there, which is normal for any footballer passionate for the game. I’ve had my great moments in Real Madrid, but it’s also good that they won this World Cup. I don’t have a single regret. »
Meanwhile, the case continues and will reach a conclusion in October. Benzema’s reaction on hearing that news was instantaneous. « Yes, finally, let’s go. Let the masquerade end forever. »
He has now settled down, has been married to French model Cora Gauthier since 2016 and he has two children – a baby boy, Ibrahim, and a girl, Melia, from his previous relationship.
The club’s clash against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool could finally show the world just how far « Coco », the boy from the barrio, has come in establishing himself as one of the greatest players in the world.
Guillem Balague will be writing a regular column throughout the season and also appearing every Thursday on BBC Radio 5 live’s Football Daily podcast, when the focus will be on European football.
You can download the latest Football Daily podcast here.