Benzema hopes to crown the comeback with a World Cup for France

PARIS (AP) — When Karim Benzema lifted the Ballon d’Or last month, the crowd at the Paris theater rose to applaud him. Now he hopes to lift France fans out of his World Cup seats.

That packed theater seemed an appropriate venue for the crowning moment of Benzema’s personal glory, considering he was once the symbol of national disapproval, long shunned and maligned by the French public following a sex tape scandal.

After a dramatic fall from grace that led to a lengthy exclusion from the national team until his retirement last year, there he was, milking the applause from him.

Calm and collected, with intellectual looks and thin-rimmed glasses, Benzema is finally celebrated as a national icon: only the fifth Frenchman to win Europe’s best player award and the first since Zinedine Zidane, his idol, in 1998.

“There were times when it was much more difficult for me. There was a time when I wasn’t in the national team, but I never gave up,” Benzema said upon collecting the Ballon d’Or. “(Zidane) told me to enjoy my football, that one day I could win this trophy. He just made me stronger mentally.”

Since his return to the national team, Benzema has scored 10 goals in 16 games, including four at last year’s European Championship, and enters the World Cup as arguably the world’s most complete striker alongside Lionel Messi.

“I don’t just think about scoring, although I can do it,” said Benzema. “I prefer to help my teammates.”

José Mourinho, Benzema’s former coach at Madrid, highlights the selfless streak that the striker has maintained by winning five Champions Leagues.

“Karim is a team type,” Mourinho said. “He is not someone who thinks of himself.”

Benzema is 34 years old and will turn 35 the day after this year’s World Cup final.

“I don’t think there is an age limit. You see more and more players getting better after the age of 30. It’s a matter of determination,” said Benzema. “I train much harder than others. You have to work a little harder and keep your dream in mind.”

France coach Didier Deschamps finally recalled Benzema to the national team in 2021 after six years out for his alleged involvement in a sex tape scandal, and Benzema was France’s best player at the European Championships. .

“I don’t just think about scoring, although I can do it,” said Benzema. “I prefer to help my teammates.”

José Mourinho, Benzema’s former coach at Madrid, highlights the selfless streak that the striker has maintained by winning five Champions Leagues.

“Karim is a team type,” Mourinho said. “He is not someone who thinks of himself.”

Benzema is 34 years old and will turn 35 the day after this year’s World Cup final.

“I don’t think there is an age limit. You see more and more players getting better after the age of 30. It’s a matter of determination,” said Benzema. “I train much harder than others. You have to work a little harder and keep your dream in mind.”

France coach Didier Deschamps finally recalled Benzema to the national team in 2021 after six years out for his alleged involvement in a sex tape scandal, and Benzema was France’s best player at the European Championships. .

The scandal, in which he was allegedly involved for blackmailing his former teammate from France Matthieu Valbuena, had major consequences.

Benzema, of Algerian descent, faced a national outpouring of vitriol and scathing criticism, including at the political level. His relationship with Deschamps reached a breaking point when, in an interview, Benzema accused the coach of giving in to racist pressure by leaving him out of Euro 2016.

Although Benzema made it clear that he did not believe Deschamps was racist, the coach’s family home was tagged with offensive graffiti.

There seemed to be no way to repair their relationship and no way for Benzema to return to the national team, which reached the final of Euro 2016 and won the 2018 World Cup without him.

Public support for him was rare. He came from Zidane, and his bond was strongly strengthened.

“I am almost like an older brother to Karim. We have almost the same path. He grew up in a housing estate, I grew up in a housing estate,” Zidane said when Benzema won the Ballon d’Or. “Nothing was easy for us at the beginning. We both had dreams of becoming professional footballers.”

Zidane was known for his incredible vision, poise, balletic poise and technical ability. So it’s a compliment when he praises Benzema’s ability.

“His control of the ball is incredible, it’s beautiful to watch,” Zidane said. “He is capable of scoring and helping others score.”

His tally of 329 goals is the second of all time at Real Madrid, an even more remarkable total considering how selfless he was during Cristiano Ronaldo’s glory era.

Benzema came to prominence when Ronaldo left Madrid to join Juventus in 2018, adding a ruthlessness to his game that wasn’t necessary when he was Ronaldo’s main supplier. Ronaldo kindly said that he would never have scored 450 goals for Madrid without Benzema’s creativity as a passer and his rare ability to open up space for him with his deceptive runs.

Taking advantage of the added pressure of his new role as main goalscorer, Benzema improved his fitness and sharpness. The goals have flown with four consecutive seasons with at least 20 league goals and 131 in total during that spell. Last season, he scored a career-high 44 goals in just 46 games, including an amazing 15 in 12 Champions League games.

He now leads France’s attack alongside Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann, his teammate at the 2014 World Cup.

Benzema was France’s top scorer at that tournament in Brazil, but missed a last-minute chance to equalize against Germany in a 1-0 quarter-final loss. Eight years later, he has another shot at glory on the biggest stage.

This time, the nation is right behind him.

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