'Special' Karim Benzema defies time and critics to lead Real Madrid

Zinedine Zidane does a nice line in gentle smiles and gentler put downs, little glimpses of what a hassle the whole dealing-with-the-media thing can be sometimes. But often he seems to enjoy it too and this was one of those times, which tends to be the case when he’s talking about Karim Benzema – the striker who sees him not just as a manager but as his “big brother”. If there is a player who elicits warmth and enthusiasm in Zidane, something almost paternal too, it is the Real Madrid No 9 who is not a No 9.

It was the last weekend before the international break and Madrid had just defeated Celta Vigo. Benzema had scored the opening two goals, decisive again. After the game, Zidane was asked about his compatriot, who has been almost single-handedly responsible for Madrid’s attacking output this season and last. “You did the right thing asking,” he replied, “because he is the hostia.”

The hostia is the communion wafer, the consecrated bread, the body of Christ. In Spanish swearing, a tool Zidane uses often and apologetically to express his enthusiasm when other words fail him, it means bloody brilliant, and it’s not wrong. “For people who like to watch football, Karim is a gift,” Madrid’s coach continued. “We enjoy him and so do his teammates. Karim makes the difference.”

It was a familiar line. “Special”, “a joy,” “spectacular” are all words Zidane has used to describe Benzema, each delivered with a soft smile that makes it more genuine; there’s a hint of discovery in his declarations, like he is watching Benzema for the first time when he’s been doing so for a decade and working with him for almost as long. There’s something almost awed, pure in his reactions, a fondness built through friendship as well as football, something shared in the way they see the game.

“Anyone who likes football, likes Karim,” Zidane says. After Madrid had beaten Atlético earlier in the season, he was asked to describe Benzema in a single word. As it turned out, he chose two: “The best.”

Right now, at Real Madrid there’s little doubt that’s the case; not so long ago, few would have said so. Fewer than should have.

It is 12 years since Florentino Pérez turned up at Benzema’s house in Lyon. He wasn’t the only player to arrive that year: so, did Kaká and so especially did Cristiano Ronaldo, which goes some way to explaining the evolution of Benzema and judgements of him. Ronaldo has gone, as has Gareth Bale, at least for now. Only Benzema is left, which also helps explain it.

Maybe his continued absence from the France team contributes – both to the lack of noise around him and the quality of his performances for Madrid. Originally left out because of accusations that he was involved in a blackmail case against his teammate Mathieu Valbuena, he later implied that racism played a part, an accusation that infuriated Didier Deschamps. This week he was again asked; by way of a reply, he laughed, accused his foreign inquisitor having been put up to it by French colleagues and brought the press conference to a close.

At the end of the Celta game a few days before that, as most of his players headed off for international duty but Benzema returned to Madrid to prepare for Liverpool, Zidane was asked about the man he had just called the body of Christ. “You don’t understand it, I don’t understand it,” he replied, “but as coach of Madrid it’s better for us.” Zidane has called Benzema the man he says is the best French forward ever, but his career has been about club more than country.

Benzema has won three leagues and four European Cups, and scored over 250 goals. Which, some may say – some do say, in fact – isn’t that many when you play for Madrid for over a decade. Not least because in the meantime Cristiano Ronaldo created a benchmark that was beyond Benzema, who has never been top scorer in La Liga. He was never even Madrid’s top scorer until the last two years.

But that probably misses the point, including the fact that you don’t survive 10 years and seven managers at Madrid without being a very good player. this is not a place that forgives failure. And now, at 33, Benzema is scoring more goals than before: in part because he has to, or perhaps because he is allowed to, inviting the conclusion that it wasn’t so much a flaw in him before as a decision for the greater good.

Not that his stats were bad anyway. He has 70 Champions League goals. Only four players have ever scored more, and two of them are within a hat-trick’s reach. You can probably guess who the other two are: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the men who broke the rules and make Benzema’s returns in the league – a goal every other game, that old measure of efficiency – look a little light.

Only three men have ever scored more goals for Real Madrid. That’s Real Madrid, quite possibly the biggest club in football history. Those men are Raúl, Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ronaldo. And if Ronaldo scored so many, it was in part to do with Benzema.

It is a simplistic conclusion, perhaps, and at times the selflessness of Benzema has been overplayed, the extent to which he subsumed himself in the mission of helping others score, the Portuguese particularly. He really has improved; it’s not just about perception. There were times too when his figures really were low for a striker, even one supplying others: he scored 11 league goals in 2012-13 and 2016-17, five in 2017-18. And yet it is the way that he sees it and there may well be something in that.

Benzema was the forward who became a facilitator, his role to knit it all together, to create and vacate spaces for the men either side of him. “Players who help make their teammates better do< shine, and with a special light,” the former manager Santiago Solari insisted, the very fact that he did so expressing something about where attention fell. Now, in Ronaldo’s absence, that light really is Benzema’s, not cast elsewhere.

“I had this guy there who scored double, triple the goals,” Benzema told the former Madrid player, manager and director Jorge Valdano during a recent interview. “I’m a football player so I say to myself ‘no worries, I’m going to leave behind that idea of scoring goals to do what I have to do’. I changed the way I played to play with him. Ronaldo’s departure has allowed me to play a different role. He was scoring 50, 60 goals a year and so you adapt to his style. He was one of the best in the world and I was happy at his side.”

He has been happy without him too, and been noticed too. The numbers do that. In 2018-19 he scored 21 league goals, in 2019-20 he scored 21, and this season he already has 18, without taking penalties. He has five in Europe. He has 11 goals in his last 10 games. That’s more than Kylian Mbappé, Erling Haaland and Ronaldo.

Those are not (yet) his highest totals – there were 21 in 2011-12, 24 in 2016-17 – and they do not fill the gap left by Ronaldo, the relentlessness. This is the lowest-scoring Madrid side in 14 years. But there has never been consistency like this from Benzema, a contribution so central, nor such recognition or responsibility. A reliance on a man who is slimmer, faster, more decisive, his goals coming in a wide variety of ways and games, contributions spread not splurged.

There’s also a toughness about him now, leadership, maturity. “It’s not that nothing affects me,” he said recently, “I have feelings but I will never show my weaknesses, even if I have them.” There’s vindication in those words, revealing that he felt misunderstood, and not just by his father. Benzema has said that his dad always focused purely on the goals and thus saw his son falling short but that he has finally won him over, revealing: “He understands my football now, before he didn’t.” The striker – and that’s not really the word, which might be the problem – clearly believed that was part of a broader failing: that people didn’t get him. Didn’t get football, in fact.

That idea is there too in Zidane’s defence of him, the elevation of discussion to a higher plane beyond the numbers. That was particularly clear when Zidane attacked Gary Lineker for judging Benzema overrated, even though this is a player too rarely included in the conversation about the world’s best strikers. “A disgrace,” Zidane called it. “I don’t know if people think that a No 9 has to score 50 goals. Karim is not going to score 60 but he will score 25 or 30 and make 30.

“People talk about Karim as a pure No 9, a nine and a half, a 10; for me, he’s a bit of everything,” Zidane says, “I would define him as a total footballer.”

Or just football itself. There’s something in the wonder, the quality, the technique, the idea: playing the game for its own sake, doing things others simply can’t. Solari said Zidane “has hands for feet” and his head works differently too. When he produced an absurd, inspired back-heeled assist last season, Benzema said simply: “Sometimes things come to me.” Zidane smiled and shrugged. “That’s Karim,” he said.

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