Karim Benzema and Didier Deschamps clear the air to give France the most envied attack at Euro 2020
Real Madrid striker is set to end his near six-year international exile as Les Bleus aim to add the European title to their World Cup crown
A cautious but candid meeting at the end of last month has healed one of the most damaging rifts in football. After almost six years exile from the France national team, Karim Benzema will return, just in time for the summer’s European Championships, ready to arm Les Bleus with an attacking threat every rival will envy.
Announcing his tournament squad of 26, head coach Didier Deschamps spoke of a “mutual interest” in the recall of Real Madrid’s Benzema, who won the last of his 81 caps in October 2015. Legal issues surrounding the player, and then a very public spat between coach and player had led to the long absence.
After reaching out to one another in late April, animosity has been put aside. Deschamps, who guided France to victory at the last World Cup without Benzema, acknowledged “an important step” had been taken by “the fact that we could see each other and talk.”
At times it seemed unlikely Deschamps and Benzema would ever exchange so much as a ‘Bonjour’. During the long exile, the relationship deteriorated so far that Benzema, 33, declared “I will not play for France while Deschamps is the coach.”
Before the last European Championships, in 2016, the player publicly blamed his exclusion from the squad on “Deschamps responding to pressure from the racist part of France,” although he added that he did not believe the national coach, and former World Cup-winning France captain, is in any way racist.
The saga began with a police investigation into an attempted blackmail of the former France midfielder Mathieu Valbuena in 2015, Benzema alleged to have acted as a go-between in the blackmail. Benzema denies the charges, which will be heard in court in October this year.
When the investigation was launched he and Valbuena were legally prevented from being in contact. At the time they were both members of Deschamps’ squad. That meant Benzema, who has 81 caps, missing national team get-togethers for a short period, though at that stage Benzema described the France manager as “supportive, he’s right behind me.”
But when Benzema was not selected – nor was Valbuena – for Euro 2016, the relationship hit its low point, and there seemed no coming back. Even after France lost the final, goalless through 120 minutes against Portugal at the Stade de France, Deschamps resisted turning to France’s most accomplished No 9. When, with the brilliant, teenaged Kylian Mbappe in the forward line, France scored four goals in a victorious World Cup final in Moscow, Benzema seemed surplus.
But some blunt performances by Les Bleus in March, just as Benzema was galvanising Madrid’s challenge for the Spanish title and steering his club into the Champions League semi-finals, are understood to have pushed Deschamps to reach out. “It was on my mind,” said Deschamps, explaining the background to the recall.
Bygones should be bygones, he suggested. “He’s probably more mature, more calm, because there are things you do when you are 20 that you don’t do at 25, and things a 25-year-old would do not a 30-year-old.”
On the face of it, Benzema has been out of international football through what would typically be a centre-forward’s peak years, but his club form has never been better.
Benzema has been directly involved in 30 of Madrid’s 65 Liga goals this season – 22 scored, eight assisted – and the advice to Deschamps from his friend and former teammate, Zinedine Zidane, Madrid’s head coach, has been clear. “I don’t understand it,” Zidane said of Benzema’s continued exile from the national squad, “most people don’t understand it.”
The recall, announced on Tuesday night, was welcomed by several France players, notably Mbappe, who is relishing combining his pace with Benzema’s clever runs and lay-offs. Benzema has not been called up merely as an option from the bench, and Deschamps envisages a de luxe front four including Mbappe, Barcelona’s Antoine Griezmann, a winger such as Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman, and Benzema.
The man slipping down the hierarchy is Olivier Giroud, who was the first-choice centre forward at the 2018 World Cup and finished with a gold medal but no goals at the tournament. Giroud’s diminishing game-time at Chelsea has tested Deschamps’ extended faith in a striker sometimes derided as workmanlike compared to Benzema.
Benzema once referred to Giroud as a “go-kart” next to his own “Formula One” skills. They will from June be together for an intense month or so as colleagues, the outsider asked to ease his way back professionally and personally into a squad of many world champions.
“Karim is intelligent,” said Deschamps of the relationships that may need rebuilding. “He knows he is coming into a group that has won titles. I’m not concerned.”
Published: May 20, 2021 06:49 AM