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Late-blooming Benzema the apple of Real Madrid’s eye

The Frenchman had a difficult start to his career in Madrid, but the advice of Zinedine Zidane and the cajoling of coach José Mourinho have helped transform him.


Shooting straight: Karim Benzema has been on target of late.

Florentino Pérez rarely betrays emotion. A wry smile is the most common reaction from the presidential palco, maybe a broad grin upon winning a title. But on a chilly night in Lyon in February, the Real Madrid president stunned everyone when he leapt up, arms raised, to celebrate the goal just scored by Karim Benzema.

It was a moment that would be a turning point for Benzema and a very public display of affection for the young man Pérez personally secured by flying to the same French city in 2009, to convince him to sign.

Born to parents of Algerian descent and one of nine siblings in the working class Bron neighbourhood in Lyon, his background and shaven head gave rise to comparisons with the great Zinedine Zidane, but the striker has modelled himself on another galáctico.

The Brazilian, Ronaldo Nazario, was an inspiration to the young Benzema whilst growing up and the story goes that on a previous visit to the Santiago Bernabéu years ago, Lyon President Jean-Michel Aulas asked his Spanish counterpart if he could have a signed Ronaldo shirt for a teenager he had in the youth ranks. The very same shirt was hanging on the wall of Benzema’s Bron home when Pérez made the trip for a glass of coke and a signature.

Having snubbed an offer from Manchester United, the quiet Frenchman arrived at Madrid in the summer of 2009 for a hefty €35 million, along with Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká and to much expectation in the Spanish capital.

Despite showing glimpses of promise, he failed to convince both manager Manuel Pellegrini and madridistas alike in a first season during which he later admitted he did not understand anything the boss said. Dubbed “cold” by teammate José María ‘Guti’ Gutiérrez, a sulker by the Madrid press and lazy by fans unimpressed with his work rate, it was a season to forget.

His second season ushered in the José Mourinho era but arriving at pre-season overweight did not impress The Special One, who later rebuked him in a training session for being “still asleep”. Confined to as little as 90-second cameos in games, the manager stated he “could learn a lot sitting on the bench.”

Following an unimpressive showing in the Copa del Rey, the front cover of Marca declared the Frenchman “dead” to Mourinho and even the diplomatic Kaká stated that he thought Benzema could do more. But the final straw came when fellow striker Gonzalo Higuaín was ruled out with a long-term injury.

Hunting with a “cat”

The manager, who had repeatedly requested a third striker in the summer for just such an occasion, gave a quote which would stick with Benzema. “If I can’t hunt with a dog, I will hunt with a cat,” he said. “With a dog you hunt more and you hunt better. But if you have not got a dog and you have got a cat, you hunt with a cat.” El gato Benzema was born and despite a later denial from the Portuguese that the cat in question was his timid striker, the name would stick.

To his credit, aware that he was not living up to expectations, Benzema did not complain, insisting he had no problem with Mourinho and that he was working hard in training to get minutes and be a better player.

Behind the scenes, his compatriot and hero Zidane had also begun offering him advice and Pérez himself would call to offer words of encouragement.

The work and counsel began to pay off, but the signing of Emmanuel Adebayor on loan in January seemed to be the final push Benzema needed. The day the deal was done, as if not wanting to be forgotten, he scored an outstanding individual goal away against Sevilla in the Copa del Rey semi-final.

Then – just 40 seconds after coming on as a substitute – he would score the goal at the Stade Gerland which so excited his president and was the first goal for Madrid at Lyon in six years. The goals kept coming and with his confidence growing, the Frenchman boldly declared: “I am not a cat, I am a lion”.

Ending the season with 26 goals in all competitions was enough to satisfy Mourinho, who declared both Benzema and Higuaín non-transferable in the summer. It also spoke volumes that the manager who had spent the previous year repeatedly requesting a third striker now never mentioned the issue.

The new, streamlined Karim

In marked contrast to a year earlier, Benzema arrived at the 2011 pre-season seven kilos lighter having attended an Italian clinic over the summer on Zidane’s recommendation.

Picking up where he left off, he has continued to hit the back of the net and has become a genuine star of Spanish football’s La Liga. His adaptation period seems well and truly over and the shy, introverted boy is no longer so timid, even celebrating a recent goal with a spot of dancing.

Mourinho recently said that with a congested fixture list and both strikers in such great form, he did not have to choose between the two but added that one day he would. It is a day that may be fast approaching as Madrid face Barcelona on Saturday in the highly anticipated Clásico.

Last November, an unconvinced Mourinho was forced to field Benzema against Barça at the Camp Nou, because Higuaín was unavailable due to injury, and Madrid lost 5-0. A year on, the Frenchman may even be first choice, and at home in front of the Santiago Bernabéu faithful, a goal would surely repay Pérez’s immense faith and seal a year in which he finally showed his worth.

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1 Comment for “Late-blooming Benzema the apple of Real Madrid’s eye”

  1. Great article. Very well written.

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