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Karim Benzema had to wait his turn.
Early in June 2009, 55,000 fans flocked to the Santiago Bernabeu to see Kaká presented as a Real Madrid player, the dawn of what Florentino Pérez, the club’s president, had promised would be a second Galactico era. Kaká was a statement signing, and, by some metrics, the most expensive player in history.
It was a title he held for only a few days. The next week, Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival drew 75,000 fans — more, perhaps — to the Bernabeu. A catwalk had been built on the field, flanked by the club’s nine European Cups. Every seat was filled hours before Ronaldo appeared, even in the oven heat of Madrid in high summer.
And then, on July 9, came Benzema. He was a different profile of signing. Benzema had starred at Lyon, his boyhood team, but he was both substantially cheaper — $40 million or so — and, at 21, significantly younger than Kaká and Ronaldo. They came already branded as Galacticos. Benzema would have to earn the label.
He was given a presentation, too — Pérez is not the sort of man to deprive people of a chance to thank him for his largess — but, perhaps, by that time, the novelty had worn off. Real Madrid’s fans had turned out for two world record signings, two established stars. A prodigiously gifted 21-year-old was not going to get them to again traipse down the Paseo de la Castellana. Benzema was welcomed by just — “just” — 20,000 fans.
From that moment, that has been Benzema’s lot: the least of the Galacticos, overshadowed first by Kaká and Ronaldo and then, as Pérez collected yet more trophy signings, by Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez and, last summer, Eden Hazard. In Benzema’s 11 years in Madrid, there has always been someone who shone brighter.
And yet Benzema has outlasted them all. Kaká departed in 2013, after four years disrupted by injury. Ronaldo fared considerably better, leaving in 2018 as the club’s career goals leader, the talisman who spearheaded four Champions League victories in five years.
Bale and Rodriguez, of course, are still there — though not, perhaps, for much longer, certainly if Madrid’s coach, Zinedine Zidane, has his way. Hazard is, too, even as he has described his first season in Madrid as the worst of his career, so troubled has he been by injury. Benzema, though, endures, the “piece that makes it all work,” as he once described himself.
It would be a disservice to Benzema’s teammates to depict Real Madrid’s triumph in La Liga — remarkably, only its second domestic championship since 2012 — as solely his work. This has, without question, been an ensemble success: Zidane has rotated his team constantly this season; he has deployed 37 different players, even Bale, when he has had absolutely no choice; 21 players have contributed goals.
And Madrid’s strongest suit has, for once, not been its star-studded attack but its (perhaps slightly uncharacteristically) resolute defense. Zidane’s team has conceded only 25 goals this season, better than its famously miserly neighbor Atlético Madrid and a club record. It did not concede at all in its first five games back after the restart. Its championship has been built on the grit and grind of Thibaut Courtois, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane and Casemiro, more than anything.
But it also has been vindication for Benzema. He has carried the team’s attacking threat, running close to Lionel Messi in Spain’s scoring race. José Mourinho, his former coach and the current Tottenham manager, once said that Benzema was not a “killer,” not enough of a ruthless finisher to be ranked among the best in the world.
He has demonstrated that cool head and that dead eye this year, and — as rather neatly encapsulated by his wonderful back-heeled assist for the crucial winning goal against Espanyol last month — lost none of his virtuosity.
It is strange, though, that Benzema should have needed vindication. He has, after all, survived at Real Madrid — a club where patience is thin and churn is endemic — for more than a decade, longer than all those other stars. For much of that time, he put the needs of others above his own, willingly adapting his role so that the “rocket,” Bale, and the “finisher,” Ronaldo, could thrive in that fabled BBC attacking line.
He has won three Spanish titles and four Champions Leagues. He is the fifth highest goal-scorer in Real Madrid’s history; given the names on the list, that is no mean feat. He has scored 248 goals in 512 games, a strike rate of a goal every other game, long regarded as the gold standard for a top-class forward.
Benzema, in other words, should have had nothing to prove. And yet, it has always felt that, when it comes to discussion of who the world’s best No. 9 might be, there is always someone shining brighter than Benzema: Radamel Falcao or Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Robert Lewandowski or Kylian Mbappé.
It is hard to understand why that is. Much of the criticism does not really add up. Benzema is marked down for not scoring enough — another of Mourinho’s withering assessments: “If you can’t go hunting with your dog, you go hunting with your cat” — and not marked up for the work he does elsewhere, creating space, knitting a team together.
The new breed of No. 9 — led by Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino — are (rightly) praised for that element of their game, while escaping (correctly, in most cases) anything but light censure for a scoring return that pales in comparison. Benzema does both. Only in his case, that appears to be a bad thing.
Perhaps the explanation is obvious: perhaps it is as simple as the fact that no forward has suffered quite as directly from the inflation in expectations that Messi and Ronaldo have wrought in soccer. Whatever Benzema did, Ronaldo, standing a few yards from him, would always do better; he could only, really, suffer in that context.
Or it may run deeper: after all, not being Messi did not exactly harm David Villa or Neymar, for example. Benzema’s accused involvement in a blackmail plot, for which he may yet stand trial, might have stained his reputation. It led, certainly, to his absence from France’s World Cup-winning side in 2018, a campaign that may have proved his apotheosis.
Or is it that first impressions, in soccer, really count? And that Benzema has always been cursed by the circumstances of his arrival in Madrid: the afterthought who became not a transcendent star but a stalwart. Benzema, whatever the reason, deserves more, simply for being the player who came as the least of the Galacticos, and ended as the last one standing.
There Is No Soccer, Apart From All This Soccer
The announcement from the august France Football magazine this week that it would, for the first time in 74 years, not award the Ballons d’Or this year was solemn, considered and just a little curious.
The magazine decided, in short, that the lack of a level playing field because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the stoppages it caused, would have in some way damaged the “irreproachability” of the award, given each year to the man and woman judged to be the world’s best player. “We did not want to put an indelible asterisk on the prize list as ‘a trophy won in exceptional circumstances due to the health crisis of Covid-19,’” the magazine said.
It is not a decision France Football would have made lightly: The issue containing an interview with the winners of the award is regularly its biggest-selling edition. The conclusion that the decision this year was influenced by the cancellation of France’s Ligue 1 — at a time when all of Europe’s other major leagues have continued — is easy to leap to, but is an unfair reflection on what is, without question, a publication worthy of respect.
The explanation, though, does not really add up. Do the players who have been able to shine in even these most extreme circumstances not warrant recognition? Are the year’s best players not the ones who have done the best in the context of that year, whatever it might be? Is erasing this year, acting as it has not happened, disingenuous?
Anyway, it leaves a gap in the market. Perhaps it’s time for The New York Times to host a flashy awards ceremony ….
What to Watch
There was a point, a few weeks ago, when you wondered if events might conspire against the restarted Premier League. Liverpool had sealed the title. The four Champions League slots — even allowing for Manchester City’s possible ban — seemed determined. Relegation, too, was a sure thing: Norwich, Bournemouth and Aston Villa could barely muster a point between them.
It seemed inevitable, then, that the last couple of weeks of the season would become a box-ticking exercise, teams playing out games just to fulfill their contractual obligations. And then, well, things changed.
As the Premier League reaches its conclusion on Sunday, there are four games that promise high drama. At the top, Chelsea, Leicester City and Manchester United can all qualify for the Champions League, with Leicester (62 points) and Manchester United (63 points) facing one another, and Chelsea (63 points) at home to Europa League-chasing Wolves.
And at the bottom: Watford has to hope it gets a better result at Arsenal than Aston Villa does at West Ham. A win in the latter match would, essentially, save Villa’s skin. But defeat could bring Bournemouth back into the equation, too, if Eddie Howe’s team can win at Everton. It is all exactly as a final day should be. Settle in, and steel your nerves.
A Risk Too Far
An apology: a couple of weeks ago, we highlighted the forthcoming appointment of Ralf Rangnick — uncle of the German pressing revolution, visionary technical director of the Red Bull sporting project — as A.C. Milan’s new all-powerful manager, tasked with rebuilding the club in his own image.
It was the sort of arrival that fired the imagination: Rangnick is the sort of figure who could, with a fair wind and a bit of support, transform Milan from ailing giant into slick, modern club. (Regular readers will know that, although this column is not long on concrete positions, the fact that Europe needs at least one strong team from Milan is one of them).
Late on Tuesday, though, Milan confirmed that Rangnick would not take the post. The club has decided that Stefano Pioli, the current coach, has done so well that it cannot, in all good conscience, replace him. Pioli has not lost a game since the restart; his team is up to sixth in Serie A; he has proved, according to Ivan Gazidis, Milan’s chief executive, that he can “deliver the vision of football we have.”
Which all makes perfect sense. Pioli has earned his chance. And yet it is a shame, somehow, that we will never know what Rangnick might have done with Milan. Or what his ideas might have done, in fact, for Italian soccer.
Still, it is probably for the best. The sort of revolution Rangnick would have wanted requires faith, patience and buy-in. That Milan has changed its mind suggests he would not have received any of those.
Despite, as far as I can tell, being an Arsenal fan, Richard Steele has correctly identified the Championship as being the “best second division” in soccer. “For those of us numb to yet more silverware for Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, there are the joys of a more competitive division,” he wrote.
Perhaps, though, he didn’t go far enough. There is an argument that the Championship is the best league in sports, full stop. Consider the events of the last week: first Leeds returning to the Premier League after 16 years, and then a final day in which the identity of the teams being promoted, relegated and making the playoffs remained in doubt until the final few seconds.
James Rafferty, meanwhile, of The Press Room in Santa Barbara, Calif., has been in touch to tell us that “there is only one pub that shows all soccer matches live” (in Santa Barbara, presumably). “We had our 25th anniversary during the lockdown, but we are now in a fight for survival — not just because of Covid, but because our landlord wants to scrape our building and develop apartments. Almost 11,000 people signed a petition to save the pub.” That’s a fantastic level of support. I hope the city listens.