Team chemistry and keeping home fans in France's corner go into Les Bleus' decision to omit Karim Benzema from Euro 2016 amid his scandal with teammate Mathieu Valbuena, writes Ben Lyttleton.
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If Karim Benzema was expecting this, he did a good job of hiding it. The French football federation had made it clear that a decision on his participation at the 2016 European Championships would be made by the end of this week, but as recently as Tuesday night, after Real Madrid had beaten Wolfsburg in the Champions League, Benzema was still hopeful of a France recall.
“I will wait to see what the [French federation] president and the coach decide,” he told BeIn Sports after the game. “I will let them decide what’s for the best. I have to remain calm and wait. If I did not want to play for France, I would have held a press conference a long time ago and said that. But the France team means a lot to me, especially when there is a Euros at home.”
Benzema has not played for France since last October, after which he was connected to an alleged blackmail attempt against France teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape.
The Real Madrid striker is the most prolific striker in La Liga this season based on goals per minute, and has always been coach Didier Deschamps’s favorite pick for center forward.
Benzema broke the story of his omission with a tweet that read: “Unfortunately for me and for all those who have always supported me. I am not selected for our Euro in France...”
The French Football Federation followed that up with a statement: “Didier Deschamps and [president] Noel Le Graet met to discuss the situation of Mr Benzema. The president of the federation and the coach would agree that athletic performance is an important but not exclusive criteria for selecting the France national team.
“The ability of players work towards unity, in and around the group, are also taken into account. As a result, Noel Le Graet and Didier Deschamps decided that Karim Benzema will not participate in Euro 2016.”
This "unity" is crucial to Deschamps. He captained France when it won the World Cup in 1998 and was there again for the successful Euro 2000 campaign. He was not involved when France collapsed under Roger Lemerre at the 2002 World Cup, nor the Euro 2008 campaign when Benzema and Samir Nasri were accused of disrespecting older players; the 2010 World Cup fiasco ended with the players going on strike at Knysna, and in 2012 Nasri and Hatem Ben Arfa disrupted the locker room harmony.
Deschamps is obsessive about the mood within the camp. He knows that in all likelihood, no matter how far France goes, he will not use all 23 of the players in his squad. Four or five of those players might not get any game time, so Deschamps sees it as important to balance the personality of the squad player in a tournament environment against his ability.
“I wouldn’t have changed the team so much if this was during a qualifying campaign,” he told SI.com last autumn before France’s game against England at Wembley Stadium. “But I need to have as much background [information] when I will name my list in May. I want to keep that list open. All I care about is the potential of a player. If I see someone who is gifted for international level, I will take my time with him. I can’t fix a definitive lineup. You can have injuries, ups and downs…”
That’s an understatement in this case. Deschamps could never have foreseen this saga and he will be frustrated to have lost a player who is clearly his No. 1. And yet you can see the reasons behind the decision. It shuts down any Benzema conversation during the tournament (although if Valbuena is picked, it could be awkward; luckily for Deschamps, the Lyon winger is in poor form and looks unlikely to make the squad).
There is also the relationship with the fans to consider. On home soil, it’s vital that France keeps its fans on its side. This has been a tricky process given the recent tournament disasters, but Deschamps has worked hard at rebuilding that damaged relationship.
A spokesman from the PMU, one of the France team’s major sponsors, told French newspaper L’Equipe that the most important thing for their brand was “the communion between the team and the public… and we hope it lasts throughout the competition.” The French paper reported that sponsors pay a combined annual €34 million for their association.
According to a poll in L’Equipe, 73% of fans did not want Benzema representing Les Bleus this summer. Football fans polled would rather see him replaced by Antoine Griezmann (35%), Andre-Pierre Gignac (24%) and then Olivier Giroud (19%). Deschamps would not want a situation in which Benzema is booed by his own fans. It will most likely be Giroud who gets the nod in the opening game against Romania, with Anthony Martial wide left and Griezmann on the right. Giroud has played well for France recently, scoring against the Netherlands last month and Germany back in November.
Deschamps has plenty of options and as the tournament goes on, he could switch to Griezmann in the center with Dmitri Payet, Kingsley Coman, Hatem Ben Arfa or Nabil Fekir as the third attacking player. It is still an exciting and dangerous lineup, worthy of France’s status as one of the pre-tournament favorites, but it is still not quite Deschamps’s ideal scenario.
By confirming this decision a full month before the squad is announced, the coach is giving enough time for the noise to abate. He wants to avoid the Benzema issue totally once Euro 2016 gets underway. One man who might be happy is Deschamps’s predecessor, Laurent Blanc, under pressure as PSG boss after its Champions League exit this week, but now demoted down the news agenda thanks to this decision.
Benzema’s absence also completes the set for the much-heralded and woefully underachieving Class of '87. These players, all now approaching 30, were seen as world-beaters when they emerged on the scene. They included Nasri, Benzema, Ben Arfa and Jeremy Menez. Benzema is the only one to have achieved consistent success with his club. Few would have bet on Ben Arfa being the most likely of the group to make the France squad this summer.