After an absence of nearly six years due to an ongoing sex-tape blackmail scandal, Karim Benzema will make a stunning return to the France national team at this summer's European Championship.
It's a staggering announcement that takes a big slice of the spotlight on Europe's biggest stage, where France will look to avenge its Euro 2016 final defeat to Portugal in Paris. France did rebound two years later to win the World Cup, and Les Blues were already considered one of the favorites at this summer's Euros; now, with the addition of one of the world's most prolific strikers, it appears to be theirs to lose.
With Germany's struggling since its shameful group-stage exit in the 2018 World Cup, Belgium unproven and dealing with some fitness issues for key players and England an evergreen wild card, France manager Didier Deschamps jumped at the chance to flex France's muscles by somehow adding more talent to the core of its World Cup–winning side.
Benzema, who has 27 goals in 81 international matches, has not played for France since October 2015 after he was arrested for his alleged involvement in a blackmail scandal involving former France teammate Mathieu Valbuena. The Real Madrid talisman will stand trial on the charge of complicity in attempted blackmail along with four others in October, just two weeks after France plays in the UEFA Nations League semifinals.
But don't expect such an international layoff to affect Benzema. The 33-year-old has made it clear in the past how much it means to be called back into the French team, and he has seemed to only get better with age.
Without having Cristiano Ronaldo in the same team, Benzema was expected to fade at Real Madrid. Rather, the striker has flourished. Whether at Lyon or Real, Benzema has never put together a three-year span in which he as scored as many goals as he has in these last three years without Ronaldo by his side.
Benzema has also seemed to bury the hatchet with Deschamps, whom he accused of giving in to pressure from racists in excluding him from France's last Euro squad (Benzema is of Algerian descent). Deschamps claimed Tuesday that the two spoke and cleared the air, though he did not divulge the details of their discussion.
“Why now? I don’t have the capacity and no one does, not even Karim, of going back and changing the past,” Deschamps said on French television upon revealing his 26-man squad. “The most important thing is today and the future.
“Obviously to come to this decision there were important steps to take, one of which was very important. We met each other, we spoke for a long time,” Deschamps continued. “That was the most important step, after which I obviously had a very long think about many things and to reach this decision now.”
With the manager switching between false nine setups and a 4-4-2 that doesn't suit the club's wealth of talent wingers, Benzema isn't just a clear upgrade as a true No. 9; he's potentially the missing piece to unlocking France's peak form.
Benzema's call-up gives France a potential front three of Benzema, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé in front of a midfield featuring N'Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba—a lineup that will be difficult for anyone to match up with this summer, or anytime else.
“That is part of the thinking, yes," Deschamps said. "Obviously on paper many things can look really great. I’m lucky to be able to count on players of very, very high level. ... I can’t complain.”
The switch to an attacking 4-3-3—successfully employed in Russia in 2018 with Olivier Giroud leading the line—or even a 4-2-3-1, gives Griezmann a chance to roam into space and use his creativity to unlock opposing defenses while Mbappé can terrorize opponents on the wing without either having to worry over staying true to more rigid, central roles as strikers.
The move to add Benzema certainly comes with an element of risk, both on and off the field (last year he compared himself to Giroud by using an F1 car and go-kart analogy, so chemistry, as always seems to be the case with France, is surely a concern), but it's one that Deschamps has surely weighed. Here is a coach who understands he has a proven talent pipeline, considered one of the best in the world, but knows that this is a clear chance to build a dynasty on the international level.
Spain won the 2008 Euros, 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euros, but Deschamps has positioned France to be favorites at an astonishing treble that would arguably outdo that feat: 2018 World Cup, these Euros and the 2022 World Cup, if not more. No team since Pelé's 1954 and 1958 Brazil teams has won back-to-back World Cups; and while this is a move confined to the Euros, Deschamps knows, as one of three men to win a World Cup as both player and coach, that constant, dominant success is the way to establish yourself as a legend in a world that never forgets its legends.
Regardless of how all may feel about it, it must be acknowledged: Adding Benzema to the Euro squad is a move toward such a grand plan.
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