France announced the 23-man squad it will be taking to Russia in a few weeks and to the shock and awe of no one, Karim Benzema isn’t on manager Didier Deschamps’ list. Instead in the forward positions Deschamps has named Ousmane Dembele, Nabil Fekir, Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann, Thomas Lemar, Kylian Mbappé and Florian Thauvin.
Deschamps’ selections are no slouches and he also omitted other established strikers like Anthony Martial and Alexandre Lacazette, who could only make the reserve squad. One can’t help but imagine what if they brought a certain controversial striker from Real Madrid on the plane to Russia with them? You know who I’m talking about already: K9 himself, Karim Benzema.
Benzema has not played for France since October 2015. In November 2015 Benzema was arrested by French police for his alleged role in blackmailing and trying to extort money from his France teammate at the time, Mathieu Valbuena. As the story goes, Karim Zenati, allegedly a childhood friend of Benzema, somehow got a hold of a sex tape (recording) featuring Valbuena and a woman who is not his wife. Valbuena has been married since 2009. Valbuena then started receiving messages from the extorters who told them they had the video and would release it if he didn’t pay them off.
Here is where Benzema comes in. At some point during the attempted extortion Benzema spoke to Valbuena while the two were training for an upcoming match for France. Benzema allegedly told Valbuena he had seen the video and knew his friend had it and the best thing Valbuena could do was “go to Lyon and speak to (Zenati) about it.” This was discovered after transcripts of Benzema and Zenati’s phone conversation discussing this leaked in 2015. While the evidence is pretty damning, Benzema was later cleared criminally, though this scandal cost him the respect of many in France, including the French Football Association and manager Didier Deschamps. Benzema has been blacklisted and exiled from the team. While there is no doubt Benzema was in the wrong for being involved at all, one can’t help but wonder if France’s loss of Benzema is the rest of the world’s gain?
While Benzema isn’t your prototypical No. 9 striker/poacher and he’s not even Real Madrid’s best forward (which is pretty hard when CR7 is your teammate), Benzema has proven himself to be consistent over the years and he scores important goals when they matter most. In fact, it was only a few weeks ago Benzema scored two goals versus Bayern Munich to ensure Real Madrid drew the second leg and as a result advanced to the Champions League final 4-3 on aggregate. The man gets it done when he has to and when it counts.
France could have used a player with that drive, passion and even a little bit of an a-hole attitude to take it to that next level in Russia. He’s delivered for his country before, scoring the goal that tied the aggregate score in the second leg of the 2014 World Cup qualification playoff against Ukraine. France would go on to win the second leg 3-0 and qualify for Brazil 2014. And if that’s not enough, at that World Cup itself Benzema scored three goals in the group stage and was voted the best player in the pool round.
Benzema could have been a dangerous tool and calming veteran presence for young guns like Mbappé and Dembele, and to anyone who thinks he’d be disruptive, he seems to be doing just fine at Real Madrid, which plays in its third consecutive Champions League final next week. His teammates including Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale love him and even Real Madrid president Florentino Perez and his manager Zinedine Zidane consider him something of a golden boy at Madrid. Just how disruptive could he really be if he excels at the best club in the world?
France ’98 midfielder and World Cup winner Emmanuel Petit recently said about France’s chances in Russia: “It's still too soon I think. We can expect semifinals, but there are a good few teams better than us. Because they have a soul in their team, we have no soul.”
Benzema has shown he can have soul when it matters most, and maybe that’s what France is indeed missing when it really counts. He has apologized for his seedy actions in the past and admitted he still wants to play for France again one day. He even made a really good documentary called “Le K Benzema” that you should really watch. It is essentially a two-hour long apology and love letter to France and French football.
So in the immortal words of Justin Bieber: “Is it too late now to say that I’m sorry?” For Karim Benzema, apparently it is.