Benzema’s return amounts to a stunning admission: France need him

Pursuit of harmony has been cornerstone of Deschamps’ reign as France manager

Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema has been included in Didier Deschamps’ France squad for the upcoming Euro 2020. Photograph: EPA

Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema has been included in Didier Deschamps’ France squad for the upcoming Euro 2020. Photograph: EPA

 

The pursuit of harmony has been the cornerstone of Didier Deschamps’ reign as France manager.

The 1998 World Cup-winning captain sought to become a World Cup-winning coach not by repeatedly picking the best 23 players, but by moulding a squad defined by togetherness and bereft of cliques and clashing egos. As such, the inclusion of Karim Benzema in his 26-man party for Euro 2020 after nearly six years out in the cold was more than surprising. Deschamps’ unusually bold decision could destabilise all that he has worked so hard to achieve.

Deschamps knows the value of an excellent atmosphere more than most. In recent decades, French society has regularly been divided along racial or religious lines. But the side he captained in 1998 – which was often referred to as “black, blanc, beur” or “black, white, Arab” – brought a fractious society together by representing all of France. “It was not about religion or the colour of your skin, we didn’t care about that,” Zinedine Zidane said later. “We were just together and enjoyed the moment.”

In contrast, Raymond Domenech found out at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa just how quickly a France squad could be destabilised by conflicting egos. The various scenes – Patrice Evra confronting assistant coach Robert Duverne; the squad hiding on the team bus in support of Nicolas Anelka following his row with Domenech; the forlorn-looking coach himself reading a squad statement denouncing the French authorities – amounted to a national disgrace as the team crashed out of the tournament without a win.

Since Deschamps’ appointment in 2012, troublesome influences have been slowly phased out. His tactic of placing harmony above all else has unequivocally worked. France are world champions and were the width of a post away from winning Euro 2016. Benzema was absent from both tournaments after the infamous Mathieu Valbuena “sex-tape” scandal engulfed the squad, further accentuating divisions among players.

His return amounts to a stunning admission: that Deschamps and France need Benzema. And, perhaps more flabbergasting still, that Deschamps is willing to risk his camp’s togetherness despite its success so far. “We met, we spoke at length, I then thought very hard and came to this decision,” said Deschamps. “I needed this chat. He needed this chat. As national team boss, I have always looked beyond my personal case. My responsibility is important. It’s bigger than me.”

Although one L’Équipe journalist reported that some players in the camp were “crazy excited” by Benzema’s call-up, he will do well to avoid a collision course with incumbent centre-forward Olivier Giroud. When compared with Giroud last year, Benzema remarked: “You don’t confuse Formula 1 with karting, and I am being nice.”

Scandal

Meanwhile, the scandal of the sex tape still hangs over Benzema. If anything, his legal situation has worsened over time. He will stand trial in October for allegedly acting as an intermediary between a group of blackmailers and Valbuena, and for allegedly pressuring his former teammate to pay off the blackmailers. After being dropped from the France squad after the scandal, Benzema accused Deschamps of “yielding under the pressure of a racist part of France” by not picking him.

Just because he has returned to the squad does not necessarily mean he will start. The fact he will wear the No 19 shirt could be a sign that Giroud will remain first choice. Deschamps has remained coy on his team selection. “They have played together before,” he mused. “They don’t actually get in each other’s way. Giroud has been in a difficult situation in his club since February. That is a fact.”

Although Giroud has been marginalised since Thomas Tuchel’s arrival at Chelsea, a goal every 100 minutes in the Premier League and Champions League this season is stronger than Benzema’s ratio of a goal every 130 minutes in La Liga and Europe. Giroud’s international record is better too.

However, Benzema’s quality will be hard to ignore after perhaps the best season of his career. Leaving him out of the starting XI would be bizarre after the furore and risks taken in bringing him back. Yet Giroud embodies Deschamps’ philosophy. A functional, malleable player who puts his team and his colleagues first, his relentless dummy-running and counter-pressing made time and space for Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé as France won the World Cup.

Benzema admitted as much himself, saying: “His style of play suits the French national team well. It works because he is there, that is the only reason. He is good because there are players like Mbappé or Griezmann who are fast and who play in the channels and pivot around the centre-forward. Him, up top, he weighs on defences, which allows the two others to move a lot and show a lot. He blocks and it works. It won’t be spectacular, he won’t do something amazing, but he has his thing.”

Although Benzema has become Real Madrid’s only reliable source of goals in recent seasons and something of a talisman for the club, the role he describes is similar to the one he perfected in support of Cristiano Ronaldo as Madrid won a hat-trick of Champions League titles. He could do the same for France.

As Deschamps suggested, he could deploy both together in the asymmetric 4-2-3-1 he used in Russia. Benzema could even be used out wide as he was during the 2014 World Cup to such devastating effect in partnership with Giroud in the 5-2 win over Switzerland.

At 33, however, that seems unlikely. While a front three of Griezmann, Mbappé and Benzema is a thrilling proposition – a possible 4-3-3 would also free up Paul Pogba in midfield – Benzema may have to earn his place. With just two warmup friendlies his inclusion may only be cemented, assuming his club form persists, deeper into the tournament.

Although Deschamps admitted “the list a year ago would not have been the one I have today” his squad remains perhaps the strongest and deepest at the tournament. While nine world champions missed out, only Samuel Umtiti and Blaise Matuidi are absent from Deschamps’ first choice XI from 2018.

Even though his performances have been shaky in recent months, Presnel Kimpembe will start as Raphaël Varane’s partner in defence, with Sevilla defender Jules Koundé and Kurt Zouma in reserve. Manchester City’s Aymeric Laporte was again overlooked but will almost certainly play in the tournament for Spain.

Anthony Martial is also absent, as “his condition does not allow it” Deschamps explained, while Houssem Aouar and Eduardo Camavinga’s recent poor club form meant both were omitted too. Adrien Rabiot, who dramatically refused to be on the reserve list in 2018, made the full squad this time and could be used on the left of Deschamps’ lopsided 4-2-3-1, with Matuidi’s international career now over after he joined MLS outfit Inter Miami. Moussa Sissoko, a Deschamps favourite and key figure in achieving squad unity, again made the squad despite his lack of recent game time for Tottenham.

Benzema’s return could be an inspired move from Deschamps. With most of the group embroiled in the 2010 incident and the blackmail scandal now fading from memory, old divisions may have simply melted away. Mbappé immediately tweeted his support for Benzema and it was reported that Giroud did not object.

Fellow senior player and Madrid teammate Varane will be a ready-made confidant for Benzema too. It is a risk but in an open tournament, Benzema’s F1 quality could be enough to ensure France convert their pole position as tournament favourites into victory come July 11th. - Guardian (article from Get French Football News)

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