Loved by Real Madrid as he closes in on goalscoring immortality, but loathed by France after the Mathieu Valbuena sex-tape scandal… the curious case of Karim Benzema – SPECIAL REPORT
- Karim Benzema will be in the spotlight when Real Madrid host Manchester City
- To many in France, though, the 32-year-old striker is a footballing pariah
- He has been in exile from the national team since 2015 after a sex-tape scandal
- But he will soon be among Real Madrid’s all-time top five goalscorers
One by one, they slip through a gap in the steel fence and go on to the artificial pitch below. Here, in the eastern suburbs of Lyon, it is training at SC Bron Terraillon Perle.
Among the Under 9s, one boy wears the colours of Real Madrid. Another is sent out for losing concentration. Both are here following in the footsteps of their famous footballing uncle.
This maze of social housing and identi-flats is where the story of Karim Benzema began.
Karim Benzema is approaching goalscoring immortality after 11 years at Real Madrid
In a post-Cristiano Ronaldo age at the Bernabeu, Benzema has become Los Blancos’ focal point
‘We’d be here training, he would train alone in front of the wall,’ remembers Frederic Rigolet, who helped coach Benzema and now tutors his nephews. ‘One hour, two hours… then after it closed, he would go on to the grass.’
The Benzemas no longer live around the corner, in the house overlooking that browning turf where he passed the days. But many of the family still call this area home. Benzema returns to see friends and relatives, too.
For more than a decade, though, he has been 500 miles away – writing the latest chapter of this extraordinary life.
To many in France, the 32-year-old is a footballing pariah. Following a sex-tape scandal he has been exiled from the national team for more than four years, his life a lightning rod for discussions about race, identity and integration.
At Real Madrid, however, Benzema is approaching immortality. He has created more goals than anyone in the club’s history and will soon be among Real’s all-time top five scorers.
Benzema has been a footballing pariah in France since a sex-tape scandal emerged in 2015
A sex-tape involving Mathieu Valbuena (right) made its way into the hands of blackmailers
No Frenchman has scored as many Champions League goals and on Wednesday night Benzema hopes to dash Pep Guardiola’s European dreams when Real meet Manchester City in the last 16.
In a post-Cristiano Ronaldo age, Benzema has become Los Blancos’ focal point. All while remaining on the fringes back home.
Like many suburban backwaters, much of Bron sits the wrong side of the ringroads which separate French cities from their rough edges. These areas can be hotbeds of crime and cynicism. They can also breed superstars.
Few footballers have blurred those lines like Benzema. To understand why this ‘troubled genius’ has caused such tremors on and off the pitch, you need to understand this place.
‘When he has a problem, people say it’s because he comes from a bad area,’ Rigolet says. He maintains, however, that Bron also provided the ingredients for Benzema to fly: the ‘perseverance’ to stand out and, more important, the ties that bind. ‘His whole family is very close,’ Rigolet adds. ‘That’s helped him to become a good player.’
As their son rose, Benzema’s parents moved further out of the city. ‘In Bron, everyone knows everyone. There they didn’t have that,’ Rigolet adds. ‘So they came back.’
Here, too, they can escape the noise. Benzema’s reputation has been dragged through the mud but in Bron, a culture of silence reigns. ‘We must not spoil his image,’ Rigolet says.
Frederic Rigolet helped coach Benzema in the suburbs of Lyon and now tutors his nephews
During his international exile, he has won 10 trophies, including three Champions League titles
BENZEMA: CLUB vS COUNTRY
For kids, Benzema is a symbol of hope. ‘We cannot change the events,’ Rigolet says. ‘The only thing we can do is show he is a good boy who has a very good side.’
When he joined Lyon’s youth set-up, just a few miles from home, Benzema was the only kid who stayed at the academy boarding house. ‘His parents really wanted to protect him so he didn’t do anything stupid,’ says journalist Christian Lanier, who has been covering his progress since the early days.
Soon, though, Benzema’s stature outstripped his age and Real owner Florentino Perez came to Bron to lure him to Spain. His problems began to spiral.
Benzema and Franck Ribery were charged with sleeping with an under-aged girl. Both were cleared in January 2014. Everything changed, though, in October, 2015, when Benzema spoke to France team-mate Mathieu Valbuena at training.
The details are disputed, but the facts are these: a sex-tape involving Valbuena made its way into the hands of blackmailers. Through a childhood friend, Benzema became embroiled in the saga. He was arrested and Manuel Valls, France’s then prime minister, wanted him out of the team.
‘He was born in a difficult district and hasn’t changed his friends,’ French football chief Noel Le Graet said at the time. ‘He’s been keeping some bad company.’
Benzema will be in the spotlight when Real Madrid host Manchester City on Wednesday night
Benzema was briefly suspended from France duty, then not picked for Euro 2016 or the glorious 2018 World Cup campaign. Last November Le Graet said Benzema’s ‘adventure with France is over’.
Around Bron, some have stopped supporting France because of the treatment of Benzema. But a national survey last year found nearly 80 per cent of respondents didn’t want him back in the team.
Why? Racism and politics are among the common accusations. But what is certain is that scepticism has long hung over Benzema. His ‘withdrawn’ personality didn’t help, nor his decision to play for France despite claiming: ‘Algeria is my country.’
Those comments were catnip for the far right and tapped into wider conversations about France’s relationship with its immigrant population. There is symbolism in that he continues to ‘pay’ for the French team’s strike at the 2010 World Cup – despite not being selected.
A refusal to sing the national anthem, meanwhile, only fanned the flames. But French icons Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane didn’t sing the national anthem either. Platini has Italian ancestors, and the roots of Benzema and Zidane stretch back to villages in Algeria separated by around 12 miles.
Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane (right) labelled Benzema the best centre forward in 2017
After leading France to victory at the 1998 World Cup, Zizou morphed into a model for integration and an idol for youngsters everywhere. Including Benzema. Now they are master and pupil.
Since Zidane reassumed the helm at the Bernabeu, Benzema has 26 goals in 42 games.
‘He’s the best centre forward around,’ Zidane told French media in 2017.
The Madrid star insists he and his ‘big brother’ have ‘similar personalities,’ and Zidane said they have a ‘similar story’.
Benzema was one of the world’s most sought-after prospects when he moved to Madrid for £35million in 2009. Eleven years on, the striker has a €1billion release clause – at around £835M, it is believed to be the highest in the world.
‘A real love story,’ is how Perez described Benzema’s relationship with Real. Even while the winds of uncertainty swirled back home.
‘He has suffered from what happened,’ Zidane said. ‘He loves the French team.’
Benzema is hunting more records and a fifth Champions League title with Madrid this year
But Benzema’s family believe the upheaval has been to Madrid’s benefit. His sister says: ‘This story helped Karim to become the best, he works harder and harder and said, “If France don’t pick me, I will become the best and they will ask me to come back”.’
Benzema has felt the ire of Madrid’s impatient fans. But his goalscoring record has remained fairly consistent amid the turbulence and his trophy cabinet has certainly swelled. During his international exile, he has won 10 trophies, including three Champions League titles.
Here in his home town, there is a sense of injustice at the World Cup-shaped hole on his c.v., but if Zidane or someone else eventually replaces Deschamps, could that door reopen?
For now, Benzema is hunting more records and a fifth Champions League title with Madrid.
After four games without a goal, he is probably due one. Next up, Guardiola and Manchester City.
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