Today, Karim Benzema is arguably the finest player in world football, but 20 years ago, he was a teenager coming through the ranks at the famed academy of Lyon. Benzema spent five years playing for the French side from 2004 to 2009, playing 148 matches, scoring 66 goals, and providing 27 assists.
During his time at the club, he won the Ligue 1 championship on 4 occasions, but the best of his seasons was the 2007/2008 season where Lyon won the League and Cup double (Ligue 1 and Coupe de France) while he finished the Ligue 1 season as top scorer with 20 goals and was voted the Ligue 1 Player of the season.
What was remarkable in his gameplay was his off-the-ball movements, 1-2 passing and side-foot finishing which was somewhat like the football legend, Ronaldo De Lima. It was no surprise when Benzema said in interviews that Ronaldo De Lima was his childhood idol — even his goal celebration of spreading both arms open was like that of Ronaldo’s.
Sir Alex Ferguson and His Pursuit of Karim
It was no secret back in 2008 of how much Sir Alex Ferguson was desperate to bring the young Frenchman to Manchester United. Benzema was only 22 years at the time and Ferguson foresaw a hot young talent who could be at the top of his game for the next ten years.
Coincidentally, Manchester United drew Lyon, Benzema’s former side in the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League of the 2007/2008 season where Benzema scored the opener in the first leg match at home which ended 1-1.
Both matches over the two legs were tightly contested and it was not until the 53rd minute of the game when Benzema received a pass on the edge of the United box, surrounded by three defenders, turned, and shot towards goal with his left foot, beating Edwin Van der Sar in the process.
Carlos Tevez would score the equalizer for Man United while Cristiano Ronaldo scored the lone goal in the second tie to send Man United to the Quarter Finals. It was said that Ferguson had to be ushered away by Lyon officials when the Man United gaffer tried to speak with Benzema after the game to convince him to sign for the Red Devils.
At the end of the 2008/2009 season, when Cristiano Ronaldo seemed destined to sign for Real Madrid, Ferguson tried once more to sign Benzema but claimed that they could not pay more than their valuation of the young striker. Real Madrid took advantage, paying an initial fee of €35 million rising to €41 million with incentives and bringing him to the Spanish capital alongside Ronaldo.
The Last Man Standing
During the 2009/2010 season, Florentino Perez, who resumed his second term as President of the Los Blancos, began a second Galacticos project and did so by signing eight players in the summer transfer window, spending a whopping 258.5 million euros plus add-ons, as well as recalling Ezequiel Gray back from loan and promoting Antonio Adan from the youth team to the first team.
Nothing like that had been seen on the football stage before by one club in a single transfer window and the idea was not just to challenge their eternal rivals, FC Barcelona, who had won the treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey, and UEFA Champions League in the previous season, but also to dominate the football stage for the next decade.
Five of those new incomings have retired, namely Kaka, Xabi Alonso, Esteban Granero, Ezequiel Garay and Alvaro Arbeloa, while Alvaro Negredo plays for Cadiz, Raul Albiol plays for Villarreal, Antonio Adan plays for Sporting and Cristiano Ronaldo plays for Manchester United. The last man standing in Chamartín from those ten additions in 2009? Big Benz.
The 2021/22 Season
Since the start of the 2021/2022 season, Benzema and Mohamed Salah have laid a strong claim to be called the best player in the world. On Matchday 21 of the La Liga Santander, Benzema reached the 300-goal club for the Los Blancos, scoring a brace in the 4-1 win over Granada to extend their lead at the top of the table to 8 points, whilst also having played two games more than 2nd place team Sevilla.
The 34-year-old is one of the club’s all-time legends, having moved up to 3rd place in the all-time top goal scorers for the club, and with the current form that he is in, he will definitely surpass Raul in 2nd Place. However, usurping Ronaldo’s record will be a difficult task.
It is amazing how the 34-year-old has picked up an incredible form in the twilight of his career; just when you would expect him to be on a rapid decline such as his age mates Edinson Cavani or Luis Suarez, he seems to be getting better and better.
He is still in top shape physically, and there isn’t any obvious evidence of a drop in his pace as he is even as mobile as ever and maintains great off-the-ball movement. If Karim can stay fit and avoid injuries, he could still play top-level football for the next two to three years comfortably.
Return to the French National Team
After a five-year hiatus in playing for the France national team, he was called up for the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship, where alongside Paul Pogba, he was the team’s best player. El Gato scored four goals, winning the bronze boot despite France’s early and surprise elimination in the Round of 16 to Switzerland.
The UEFA Nations League took place in October 2021 and France emerged victorious beating Spain 2-1 in the final. Benzema enjoyed a successful time in this friendly tournament, scoring two goals, and named the MVP of the final match.
With the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar on the horizon, Benzema will not only be expecting to add to his impressive silverware tally with Real Madrid, having won 13 trophies with Los Blancos thus far, but also lead Les Bleus to its second straight World Cup.
By: Kayode Dave Ogunbameru / @DaveOgunbameru
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Angel Martinez – Getty Images