Karim Benzema: Real Madrid's Self-Sacrificing Superstar With Nothing to Prove

It's not often that a tweet from Gary Lineker threatens to escalate into a diplomatic incident.

But when the affable Match of the Day host suggested in 2017, using his most cringeworthy Dad-on-Holiday Spanglish, that Real Madrid's French number nine Karim Benzema was 'nada especial', Los Blancos saw red.

'For football people to say this is embarrassing,' withered Benzema's manager Zinedine Zidane, pointing out that any criticism of the striker's rather lean goal-to-game ratio obscured one simple fact - that although Benzema will score 30 less goals than expected of Real Madrid's leading marksman, he 'will assist another 30'.

This is the story of Benzema's career, one in constant need of justification, spent in the shadowy margins of goalscoring charts and Wikipedia pages, a career where his influence can only be traced through how the achievements of other players put it into context.

Benzema himself admitted as much in a defence of his record which was at once defiant and self-deprecating, conceding that in the much-lauded 'BBC' of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo he was neither a 'rocket' like the Welshman or, in an extraordinary confession for a number nine, a 'goalscorer' like Ronaldo.

But ever-conscious of how even a fiery star like Bale or Ronaldo needs something outside of it which sustains and feeds it, Benzema knew the exact words to describe his own position in this radiant constellation of Galacticos: 'then there was me, the piece that made it all work.'

Lyon's french forward Karim Benzema cele
Benzema started his professional career at Lyon | JEAN-PIERRE CLATOT/Getty Images

Benzema's unique capacity as a forward is to operate inside and outside of greatness, making the sacrifices which allow the game's immortal talents to access the very highest levels of performance, but without slipping below the minimum standards of an elite player in his own position.

Even in his beginnings at Lyon, however, there remained the sense that Benzema was having to prove his own pretensions to greatness, to justify his own right to rub shoulders with the very best.

The story of a teenaged Benzema, quiet but purposeful, inviting his peers to 'go ahead and laugh now,' at his youthful awkwardness, warning them that 'if I'm here today, it's to take your place in the team' is well known, but it was clear he saw such challenges to his resilience as a necessary part of his education.

Real Madrid's new football player French
Benzema was one of the second wave of Florentino Perez' Galacticos | PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/Getty Images

Benzema explained that 'when I started training alongside the professionals, I would run around like a headless chicken', but slowly and methodically 'won the respect of the players', such that by 2007 he was honoured with Lyon's number 10 shirt and a role as their leading striker.

It was thus an interesting proposition to see how Benzema would react to working that hard just to end up at the beginning of a bigger food chain after his move to Real Madrid in the summer of 2009.

From a multi-million pound commodity at Lyon to a near-afterthought among the rebooted Galacticos with £150m already spent on Ronaldo, Kaka and Raul Albiol (spot the odd one out), Benzema had gone from the best possible attacking option to one of many, and his task now was to prove his value - the cycle had begun anew.

Karim Benzema
It turned out OK for Benzema and Madrid in the end... | Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Once more, Benzema found himself facing scrutiny, increasingly probing and intense this time, with
José Mourinho in one ear bemoaning his 'listless' demeanour in training and national team manager Laurent Blanc in the other demanding that Benzema lose weight.

Again it seemed, the question was being asked as to whether Benzema could adapt and reshape himself to operate at the top level, and again these questions seemed to motivate him as he evolved and conquered.

The Frenchman was dead set on getting his head down and shedding unflattering comparisons to Nicolas Anelka, taking time out of his summer holiday in 2012 to attend a high performance clinic in Merano where his diet was strictly regulated, losing eight kilograms in the process. In the eyes of his coaches the challenge had been more than met - 'finally the real Benzema is playing for Madrid' declared a satisfied Mourinho - but as Benzema and Madrid entered an unprecedented era of success he faced his hardest battle yet - winning over the armchair fan.

Karim Benzema
Benzema has never been beloved by the average football fan | Soccrates Images/Getty Images

In one sense, Benzema is a victim of his fascinating style of play, which can be encapsulated by two crucial words - dropping deep.

Even he would agree that he's not a prolific, ultra-direct goalscorer to be compared with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo or Robert Lewandowski. While he has had four 20+ goal La Liga seasons, the infamous 2017/18 campaign, where Benzema somehow only scored five goals in 32 games, gave him a deserved reputation as a striker whose form can violently fluctuate in front of goal.

But with his clever movement and proficiency in the air, Benzema is sustainable enough in a central role, and as the current season has shown, he can function, without flourishing, as a team's primary goalscoring outlet. What's perhaps most interesting about Benzema is the players around him, and how he can combine the makings of a really solid number nine with aiding and abetting the Ronaldos and Lewandowskis of this world.

FBL-EUR-C1-REALMADRID-CELEBRATIONS
What a trio! | CURTO DE LA TORRE/Getty Images

The big, bustling Frenchman has a surprising level of technical finesse for a 6"1' forward - just about as good a touch for a big man as you can hope for - and his powerful, sleek bursts of dribbling and clever positioning helps relieve midfield pressure and pose a real issue for defenders, who in marking him leave plenty of space for more advanced players to operate in.

When said advanced players are the aforementioned 'rocket' and 'goalscorer', brilliant - your end result is an unstoppable attacking triad which produces four Champions League victories in five years (with Benzema starring in the most recent 2018 triumph).

When the advanced players are replaced with relatively raw youngsters Vinícius Júnior and signings struggling to adapt to the pace of a new league like Eden Hazard, the results are understandably far less fluid.

France's national football team forward
Benzema is unlikely to play international football again | FRANCK FIFE/Getty Images

Yet by travelling back in time, the last remaining member of the BBC then stepped up his goalscoring production in the back end of 2019/20 to drag this young, developing team across the line in the near-final vindication of his all-round abilities. Benzema was once again the line-leader of his Lyonnais beginnings, succeeding once more in a form which was palatable to ordinary supporters, and the stat sheet.

Of course, it would be impossible to talk about Benzema's endless journey for self-justification without the gloss which would make it definitive: his international career.

Euro 2008 bought criticism of his play style, the 2010 World Cup scandal, Euro 2012 a disappointing exit, World Cup 2014 a hattrick in a rampant group stage but further disappointment, before any chances of participating in the emotional, era-defining tournaments of 2016 and 2018 were engulfed in the Matthieu Valbuena blackmail scandal within which Benzema was implicated.

FBL-EURO-2016-FRA-SRB-FRIENDLY
There will always be something missing from Benzema's CV | FRANCK FIFE/Getty Images

The perfect unselfish striker for Europe's most perfect team, Benzema is set to miss out on a historic epoch of plenty for France, and unless Algeria, his parents' country, come calling (disclaimer: this is currently impossible under FIFA's rules) his chance of proving himself at an international tournament is all but over.

The Champions League may be by far the highest echelon of competition in the modern game, but in the eyes of many, and perhaps Benzema himself, the final staging post of greatness will forever elude him.

And for a player with Benzema's close but complicated proximity to greatness, this strange fate feels somewhat fitting.