Karim Benzema, ‘Generation 87’ last man standing, now the focus for France
Twelve months ago, Karim Benzema was France coach Didier Deschamps’ biggest problem, but now the hope is that the in-form striker will be the solution for the French in Brazil.
The 26-year-old Real Madrid striker comes into what will be his first World Cup after enjoying a liberating last six months, both on the field and off.
Benzema endured a shocking international goal drought of 1,222 minutes before coming good just in the nick of time, finally getting back among the goals in a 6-0 friendly win against Australia in October before scoring in the crucial 3-0 play-off second-leg victory over Ukraine in November that took France to the World Cup.
The former Lyon player has now scored four times in his last five international appearances, boosting his overall record for his country to 19 goals from 65 caps.
Now, with Samir Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa and Jeremy Menez falling by the wayside, he is alone in flying the flag for France’s lauded ‘Generation 87’, the team that beat the Spain of Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas to become European under-17 champions in 2004.
“When he plays at that level it is great for us,” said Deschamps after Benzema scored one and helped set up another in a 2-0 defeat of the Netherlands in March.
“Let’s hope he can keep it up. You can see it on his face. He is beaming and that is because he is feeling confident.”
Along with Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery, Benzema had a huge weight lifted from his shoulders in January when a Paris court acquitted both of charges of having sex with an under-age prostitute that had been hanging over them for four years.
Days later it was revealed that he had become a father for the first time.
He has grown up and his performances on the field have improved, with Benzema enjoying his most consistent season since moving to Madrid for 35 million euros (Dh174m) in 2009.
Born in Lyon, the son of Algerian immigrants made his debut for his hometown team aged 17 in January 2005, coming on as a late substitute in a 2-0 win against Metz.
“Don’t laugh. I’m here to take your place”, he warned as his senior teammates teased him in the dressing room before that game. Come 2007/08, he was the star of the Lyon side that won the league and cup double, scoring 20 goals in Ligue 1 alone.
His full international debut came aged 19 in March 2007, and it was a memorable one, as he came on at half-time in a friendly against Austria and needed just nine minutes to score the game’s only goal.
Raymond Domenech took Benzema to Euro 2008, but a difficult first season in Spain saw him left out of the squad for France’s disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign.
It wasn’t easy for him at first at the Santiago Bernabeu, and after a poor performance in a goalless draw at lower-league Murcia in the Copa del Rey in 2010, sports daily Marca’s front-page headline screamed: ‘Benzema is Dead’.
“The truth is things were complicated at the start,” he says. “I knew that the fans were very demanding. That’s normal when you see the size of the club.
“They expected more from me so they booed me, but I told myself to keep going, keep fighting.”
He grew into a first-pick under Jose Mourinho and scored 21 league goals in Madrid’s 2011/12 title-winning campaign.
This season he has flourished in Carlo Ancelotti’s ‘BBC’ attack in between Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, and negotiations to extend his contract beyond 2015 are ongoing.
Benzema feels at home there now and benefits from the presence of Zinedine Zidane, another French-born son of Algerian immigrants who is assistant coach.
Benzema says they stay behind at the end of training sessions “to work on aspects of my game, and then we chat about a little bit of everything.”
Those chats might involve what it takes to win a World Cup, something ‘Zizou’ achieved in 1998, when France defeated Brazil in the final.
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Published: May 20, 2014 04:00 AM