France coach Laurent Blanc and Jose Mourinho, in charge of Real Madrid, used to spend hours talking football when the pair crossed paths at Barcelona during the 1996-97 season. Blanc was a player then, and Mourinho part of Bobby Robson's coaching staff (they were often joined by fellow players Gica Popescu, Luis Figo and, ironically, current Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola). Nowadays the two coaches are still on friendly terms, and it¹s safe to assume that at the moment, one subject dominates their conversations more than any other: France and Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema.
Both men are currently trying, and failing, to get the best out of the 22-year-old Benzema, who in his second season in Spain is still struggling for form and fitness.
It was something of a surprise when Benzema, at 21, moved from Lyon to Real Madrid for a fee of $48 million in the same summer it signed Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo. Benzema made the decision for three reasons: one, he had always supported Real Madrid (that was not post-signing bluster, he admitted as much in an interview in 2007); two, he wanted to follow the footsteps of his idol, Brazilian forward Ronaldo; and three, he was touched that president Florentino Perez flew to his house in France to clinch the deal. "That showed me how much he wanted me," he told Lyon Foot magazine.
Benzema had definitely outgrown Lyon: in five years there, he won four league titles, one of which was a league and Cup double, and scored 67 goals in 150 appearances. Lyon had become dependent on him and captain Juninho, and his departure was tinged with the knowledge that it was best for both parties to move on. Fans fondly recalled the story of how, as a 17 year old, Benzema was laughed down by his teammates when, on the night before his debut, he mumbled through a speech. "Go ahead and laugh now, but don't forget that if I'm here today, it's to take your place in the team," he famously retorted.
His early days in Spain were difficult: he made the mistake of telling the French press that Raul, then the club captain, refused to pass to him during matches, and that he was struggling to learn the language. It seemed that the ghost of Nicolas Anelka, who only survived one season in Madrid aged 20, was back. But Benzema recovered, worked well with his strike partner Gonzalo Higuain and toed the party line in subsequent interviews. He might have thought his return of nine goals in 33 matches would be enough to earn a spot in France's World Cup squad, but France coach Raymond Domenech had other ideas.
Benzema's relationship with Les Bleus has always been a complicated one. If anything, Benzema set expectations too high for himself with three goals in his first five internationals when he was 19. He had already scored 16 in 50 Lyon games, and his stats compared favorably with France's best strikers: at the same age with their clubs, Thierry Henry had scored 15 in 62, Louis Saha one in 21, Djibril Cisse eight in 28, David Trezeguet none in 15 and Anelka, the only one to have played for France by then, 14 in 60.
The problems really began at Euro 2008, at which Benzema and Samir Nasri were accused of disrespecting the older players. Benzema ended the tournament on a nine-game goalless run and the great hope of French football had suddenly become the "Enigme Benzema," the Benzema Enigma.
He was criticized from all sides: for not repeating his Lyon performances for Les Bleus, not getting on with Thierry Henry on the pitch, and even passing too much to Franck Ribery. Zinedine Zidane sparked a minor spat when he suggested that Benzema did not look at ease in the France setup. "I wouldn't pay to play alongside Zidane, why would I do that?" Benzema told TV show Le Grand Journal in response.
In the home draw with Romania last year, Benzema caused a national outcry when he admitted that he couldn't be bothered to try after coming on as a substitute. In the rush to condemn him, Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger sounded a note of caution. "When you are 21 or 22, your ego is so strong that it can tip you over the edge all the time," he told L'Equipe. Benzema admitted that he was wrong to speak out but the damage was done and he was omitted from France¹s World Cup squad (as it turned out, luckily for him).
So with Blanc and Mourinho, two new coaches, now overseeing him, this was supposed to be his moment. "I want to show fans the real Benzema," he told Spanish media in preseason but Mourinho has been far from impressed, and more than once has bawled him out in front of teammates at training. "If it was up to him, I'd take training in the afternoon as he's asleep when it starts at 10, and he still hasn't woken up by 11," Mourinho told Marca. "Karim has lots of talent, lots of potential, but that's not enough."
Blanc feels the same, and has repeatedly, and publicly, urged Benzema to regain the mental and physical sharpness he had at Lyon. When Loic Remy burst down the right flank to open the scoring in France¹s recent win against Romania, Benzema began the move in line with Remy but ended it 15 meters behind, just jogging toward goal. Against Luxembourg, he scored the opener and was generously awarded the Man of the Match, but he snubbed the postmatch interview after fans jeered the decision. For a player needing some positive publicity, it was not a smart move.
Benzema still has a great chance to cement his place as France's first-choice centre-forward but Blanc must be getting frustrated at saying the same thing over again: "He needs to be on top of his game so that he's ready to seize his chance when gets it." Benzema has only played 205 minutes for Real Madrid this season, and though his match sharpness may be rusty, his fitness level should be high.
In Spain, reports have already surfaced that Mourinho is prepared to get rid of Benzema in January, possibly to his former club Inter Milan in return for Maicon. This was meant to be a make-or-break season for Benzema, but he¹s running out of time to make an impression.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.