Karim Benzema has destroyed football this season. In six games in the Champions League knockout stages he has scored 10 goals, including a hat-trick against holders Chelsea and decisive goals in thrilling comeback wins against the state-backed might of Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City.
Domestically, he fired Real Madrid to a La Liga title win in April, referred to in Spain as "Benzema's league". Yet madridistas have never warmed to him in the way they did, for example, to Alfredo Di Stéfano, who was also a foreigner, and Raúl enchanted the terraces of the Santiago Bernabéu in previous eras.
"It's true that Benzema isn't greatly loved at Real Madrid," says Diego Torres, a journalist with El País. "His personality doesn't help him. He said in an interview two or three years ago that he only has one friend in the world. He doesn't have friends. He has been legally convicted in France because he tried to blackmail a team-mate on the France national team. It was a mafia-type blackmail operation. The strange thing would be if people loved a guy that behaves like he does in life."
Benzema grew up in Bron-Terraillon, a hardscrabble neighbourhood in Lyon. He is one of nine children. His father emigrated to Lyon from the same part of northeast Algeria that the parents of Zinedine Zidane – a key figure in Benzema's career – came from. Benzema's Islamic faith is important to him. He doesn't drink alcohol or eat pork. Real Madrid's medical team devised an eating schedule that enables him to observe Ramadan during the rigours of a football season. As a kid going to a Catholic school in Lyon, Benzema was bullied for being Islamic.
Even though Benzema is the highest scorer in the history of France – the most in-form player in the world and a likely Ballon D'Or award winner this year – his Islamic background is still a cause for suspicion in France, where far-right leader Marine Le Pen polled 41 per cent in the country's recent presidential election. Gilles Dumas, a sports image consultant in Paris, says Benzema's full beard doesn't help his image, making him look "like a terrorist".
“We never see Zidane with a beard,” he adds. “We have a big problem in France with Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front party. For these people, it is easy to say, ‘Benzema’s not a good guy. He’s Algerian’. Nobody says that in the media but I’m sure that many, many people think it. Zidane didn’t behave perfectly. He got a lot of red cards. There were problems with his family, but always you saw Zidane smiling. He could disarm, with those very clear eyes. Benzema is reserved. He’s not sympathetic.”
Olympique Lyonnais, or OL as it’s known locally, was the making of Benzema. He joined when he was nine years of age. At 15, the club took a punt on him, moving him into Tola-Vologe, a boarding house for their youth academy players. It was a strict regime. Players had to be in bed by 10.30pm. Benzema was the only Lyon-raised recruit that was taken in-house.
“He was this kid that lacked a bit of confidence,” says Robert Valette, who coached Benzema for Lyon’s reserve team. “He was chubby. He was shy. He could easily go undetected. He’d never put the spotlight on himself. In a group, he would integrate himself well; he was always loved. He was never a troublemaker.
“The problem was when he was with his friends. The club wanted to isolate him from that milieu, to protect him. It worked. He thrived. The problem was that after three years, once he turned 18, he left the formation centre. He started making lots of money and his old friends were still there, hanging around. He didn’t buy a fancy place. He went back to the ’hood. He never cut the cord.”
Benzema’s entourage from the banlieue, the ghetto, were so troublesome that Barça withdrew from a deal to sign him for €30 million in 2008. Barça’s sporting director Txiki Begiristain (who now does that job at Manchester City) pulled the plug after investigations into Benzema’s background.
Real Madrid were bolder. The following year their president Florentino Pérez flew to visit Benzema in his home in Lyon. He persuaded him to join the club for €35 million. Pérez, who runs Real Madrid with an iron fist, has never made a personal gesture like that since in signing a player.
Benzema left Lyon, but he never left the 'hood. Trouble followed him. In 2010, he was investigated along with Franck Ribery, a team-mate on France's national team, for allegedly paying an underage girl for sex. Both were later acquitted of the charges. In 2016, according to French daily newspaper Liberation, he gave evidence in a money-laundering case, as part of a probe into BH Events, a company in which he was the principal shareholder.
Last October, he received a one-year suspended jail sentence for his part in attempting to blackmail his former France national team-mate Mathieu Valbuena with a sex tape. Benzema absented himself from court in Versailles, citing work commitments, as the two-day court hearings fell between a Champions League match and a clásico against Barça. His absence was criticised by the court. It has yet to be confirmed if Benzema will attend the appeal hearings, which are scheduled for the end of June.
It’s not easy being Benzema. He’s called “the cow’s milk” in Lyon because of the pressure his wider family put on him to support them. In 2012, his maternal grandmother brought an action against him for refusing to pay monthly €1,500 maintenance payments. A couple of years later, his grandmother withdrew her case, admitting she had been “manipulated” into taking her action by other family members. It emerged that Benzema had being paying her rent since 2007.
Football is a refuge for Benzema. He was recalled to the France national team last year after spending six years in the wilderness because of the “sex tape” scandal. He was magisterial for an out-of-sorts France team in the deferred Euro 2020 finals and he scored decisive goals in France’s League of Nations trophy win last October.
At Real Madrid, his trajectory has been interesting. For years, he blew hot and cold: a mesmerising performance would be followed by a mediocre one. He disappeared in games. José Mourinho, who was Real Madrid coach from 2010-2013, was unconvinced about him. He preferred to pick Gonzalo Higuaín, if fit, as his central striker. “If I can’t hunt with a dog, I will hunt with a cat,” said Mourinho witheringly when forced to play Benzema.
But Benzema had support at the club from the very top, which helped sustain him. “The faith the president Florentino Pérez had in him made Benzema believe he was the owner of the club,” says Torres. “Whatever he did, he knew that the president would have an important place in the team for him. This gave him a lot of confidence. It helped him to play much better.”
Zidane – who took over as Real Madrid's coach in January 2016 and immediately won three Champions League trophies in a row – also took Benzema under his wing. He instilled a better work ethic. He taught him the value of determination and perseverance. He insisted that he deliver more consistently, week in, week out. He appealed to their shared backgrounds. "Zidane treated him like as if he was an older brother, like a Kabyle from north Africa, " says Torres. "He said: 'We're a family. We're going to do this. We're going to perform.' "
Circumstances changed too. Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid in 2018. Benzema – who had always played second fiddle to him, disappearing so Ronaldo could appear – was able to come out from behind his shadow. He assumed leadership of the team's attack, and when Sergio Ramos left as well last summer, he became the team's reference.
With Ronaldo’s departure, Benzema’s goal-scoring statistics shot up. In fact, if Benzema had been Real Madrid’s penalty taker instead of Ronaldo, and later Ramos, Benzema would surpass Ronaldo as the club’s all-time top scorer. But Benzema’s goals only tell half the story. He has always been more of a number 10 than a number 9. His assists should be preserved in an art gallery. Few understand the geography of a pitch better and how to link up with their team-mates.
“Benzema’s best footballing quality is his brain,” says Torres. “He has a view of the pitch in his head. He can observe the position his team-mates and opponents occupy with such exact precision that it’s as if he’s wielding a topographical instrument. It helps his orientation, so he can be precise in every manoeuvre, every pass he makes. He’s not a natural-born goalscorer. He doesn’t have the ambition to score goals. He scores because he has a better vision than anyone else of what is happening around him. It’s through associations with his team-mates, he ends up scoring.”
A huge share of Real Madrid's hopes rest on his shoulders in the Champions League final against Liverpool. A winning goal from him would forever win over some sceptical madridista hearts.
Real Madrid’s old guard
For several years, Real Madrid has been operating a war economy. It hasn’t invested in its squad. Brighton and Wolves have spent more net on players over the last decade. Remarkably, Real Madrid’s old guard, who are running on fumes, have dragged the club to another Champions League final, the club’s 17th, looking to win its 14th title.
Some of Real Madrid's players are hunting their fifth winners' medal: the midfield wizard Luka Modric, who turns 37 in September; Karim Benzema, joint third top scorer in 67 years of European Cup competition; Dani Carvajal, who laid the foundation stone at Valdebebas, the club's training complex, with Alfredo Di Stéfano 18 years ago; holding midfielder Casemiro; and squad players Gareth Bale, Isco, Nacho and Marcelo, the most decorated player in the club's history. Toni Kroos, who won with Bayern Munich in 2013, is also looking to win the tournament for the fifth time.
There are echoes with a bygone age. The Di Stéfano team that won five European Cups in a row from 1956-1960 lost two finals in 1962 and 1964. It was a bridge too far for Di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskás and José Santamaría, all of them in their thirties, and Paco Gento (who won his sixth medal in 1966). Perhaps Benzema, Modric & Co – once more heading into the breach – will defy the aging process.