This year's the Ballon d’Or, the most prestigious individual prize in football will likely be handed to one of its serial winners in Lionel Messi. He won his first senior international trophy with Argentina in 2021 and, after all, his brilliance never fades.
On Sunday night, a contemporary of Messi’s also won his first senior international gold medal with his country, France. He is an outsider for the Ballon d’Or but, at 33, seems to get better and better and ever more influential for his teams. What would Real Madrid be without Karim Benzema? Where would France, now the holders of the Uefa Nations League after the dazzling second edition of its finals, be without him?
For more than five years, they chose to be without him. France did not select Benzema between late 2015 and the spring of this year, because of a series of off-the-pitch issues, the most enduring and apparently unsolvable a breakdown in trust between manager, Didier Deschamps, and player.
During the long exile, Benzema won three Champions Leagues with Madrid, and two Liga winner’s medals. He took leadership of Madrid’s attack after five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo left the club in 2018.
Without Benzema, France reached the final of Euro 2016, where they laboured to a defeat in extra-time in Paris, against a Portugal deprived of the injured Ronaldo for most of the contest. That night, Les Bleus could have used the guile, finishing and competitive zeal that Benzema brought to their thrilling Nations League semi-final against Belgium last Thursday and to the 2-1 win in the final against Spain.
Without Benzema, France did triumph at the 2018 World Cup, their game plan sharpened thanks to the emergence of Kylian Mbappe. Benzema watched France’s progress wistfully from afar.
Just over six months ago, Deschamps made the decision to reach out, mend fences, concerned that Les Bleus had become predictable going into Euro 2020. There was a coolness to the initial conversations, but a clear, shared desire that Benzema should bring the same leadership to France as he does to Madrid.
The coach saw it thoroughly displayed over the last week. After France had staged a second successive comeback, from 1-0 down against Spain, as they had from 2-0 down to beat Belgium 3-2, Deschamps was beaming about Benzema.
“Karim is a special footballer,” said France’s manager, “and his quality is obvious. His role for us is along the same lines as for Madrid, he’s matured and developed and I’m very happy he is with us. The [Nations League] is an important title for him.
“In the future the talent and the competitive spirit he can bring us will be indispensable.”
The spirit was evident in Benzema’s goal against Belgium, just after the hour. France were trailing by two goals and Benzema launched the recovery. Likewise against Spain, who went 1-0 ahead through Mikel Oyarzabal with less than half an hour of the final left. Within two minutes, Benzema had curled a sumptuous shot into the top corner.
Spain 1 France 2: player ratings
Momentum had swung, confidence restored by the timing and excellence of the strike. Mbappe struck the winning goal 14 minutes later, fortunate to be judged on side as he stole behind the Spanish defence.
Benzema now has six goals in his last seven matches for France, all scored in tournaments. He was France’s leading marksman when they exited Euro 2020 on penalties in the last-16 stage, Mbappe seeing the decisive spot-kick saved. Against Belgium last week, Benzema made a point of giving the ball to Mbappe to take the penalty from which France equalised. “I wanted Kylian to score,” he explained.
The complicity on the pitch between Mbappe, 22, and Benzema, 33, is becoming one of France’s fortes, with shades of the understanding Benzema built up with Ronaldo over nine years as Madrid team-mates. They have a strong relationship on the training ground and in their down time.
That is good news for Madrid, who made a €180 million ($208m) bid to sign Mbappe from Paris Saint-Germain in August. PSG turned it down, but Mbappe, who is out of contract in June, has long been interested in the move.
Benzema would welcome Mbappe to the capital of Spain. That is a persuasive factor. The former France outcast, now the Bleus main man, may soon be having a major impact on French league football, helping to coax Mbappe, the country’s greatest young talent, away from Ligue 1.
Deschamps could hardly complain if it happens. The more his best strikers play together, the better for France.