Benzema hopes to crown comeback with a World Cup for France

PARIS (AP) — When Karim Benzema held up the Ballon d’Or award last month, the crowd in the Parisian theater rose to applaud him. Now he hopes to lift France fans out of their seats at the World Cup.

That crowded theater seemed a fitting location for Benzema’s crowning moment of personal glory, considering he was once the symbol of national disapproval — long rejected and maligned by the French public following a sex tape...

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PARIS (AP) — When Karim Benzema held up the Ballon d’Or award last month, the crowd in the Parisian theater rose to applaud him. Now he hopes to lift France fans out of their seats at the World Cup.

That crowded theater seemed a fitting location for Benzema’s crowning moment of personal glory, considering he was once the symbol of national disapproval — long rejected and maligned by the French public following a sex tape scandal.

After a dramatic fall from grace that led to a long exclusion from the national team until his recall last year, there he was, milking their applause.

Calm and poised, intellectual-looking with thin-rimmed glasses, Benzema finally being celebrated as a national icon — only the fifth Frenchman to win the award as the best player in Europe and the first since Zinedine Zidane, his idol, in 1998.

“There were times when it was much harder for me. There was a period when I wasn’t in the national team, but I never gave up,” Benzema said when collecting the Ballon d’Or. “(Zidane) kept telling me to enjoy my soccer, that one day I could win this trophy. It only made me stronger mentally.”

Since his recall to the national team, Benzema has scored 10 goals in 16 games — including four at last year’s European Championship — and he enters the World Cup as arguably the world’s most complete forward along with Lionel Messi.

“I don’t just think about scoring, although I can do it,” Benzema said. “I prefer to help my teammates.”

Jose Mourinho, Benzema’s former coach at Madrid, highlights the unselfish streak that the forward has maintained while winning five Champions League titles.

“Karim is a team guy,” Mourinho said. “He’s not someone who thinks of himself.”

Benzema is 34 years old, and he will turn 35 the day after this year’s World Cup final.

“I don’t think there’s an age limit. You see more and more players improving after their 30s. It’s a question of determination,” Benzema said. “I train much harder than others. You have to work that bit harder and keep your dream in mind.”

France coach Didier Deschamps finally recalled Benzema to the national team in 2021 after six years out for his alleged part in a sex tape scandal, and Benzema was France’s best player at the European Championship.

The scandal, in which he was allegedly involved in blackmailing former France teammate Matthieu Valbuena, had big consequences.

Benzema, who is of Algerian descent, faced a nationwide deluge of vitriol and scathing criticism, including on the political level. The relationship with Deschamps reached a breaking point when, in an interview, Benzema accused the coach of caving in to pressure from racists when he omitted him for Euro 2016.

Although Benzema made it clear he did not think Deschamps was a racist, the coach’s family home was tagged with offensive graffiti.

There appeared no way to repair their relationship and no way back for Benzema into the national team, which reached the Euro 2016 final and won the 2018 World Cup without him.

Public support for him was rare. It came from Zidane, and their bond tightened strongly.

“I’m almost like an older brother for Karim. We have almost the same path. He grew up on a housing estate, I grew up on an estate,” Zidane said when Benzema won the Ballon d’Or. “Nothing was easy for us in the beginning. We both had a dream to become professional soccer players.”

Zidane was known for his incredible vision, poise, balletic balance and technical ability. So it’s some compliment when he praises Benzema’s skill.

“His ball control is incredible, it’s beautiful to see,” Zidane said. “He’s capable of scoring and helping others score.”

His tally of 329 goals is second all-time at Real Madrid — an even more remarkable total considering how unselfish he was during Cristiano Ronaldo’s glory era.

Benzema came into his own when Ronaldo left Madrid to join Juventus in 2018, adding a ruthlessness to his game that wasn’t needed when he was Ronaldo’s provider-in-chief. Ronaldo graciously said he would never have scored 450 goals for Madrid without Benzema’s creativity as a passer, and his rare ability to open space for him with his deceptive runs.

Relishing the added pressure of his new role as the main scorer, Benzema improved his fitness and sharpness. The goals have flowed with four consecutive seasons with at least 20 league goals and 131 overall during that spell. Last season, he netted a career-high 44 goals in only 46 games, including an eye-popping 15 in 12 Champions League matches.

Now he spearheads France’s attack alongside Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, his World Cup teammate from 2014.

Benzema was France’s top scorer at that tournament in Brazil, but he missed a last-gasp chance to equalize against Germany in a 1-0 quarterfinal loss. Eight years later, he has another shot at glory on the biggest stage.

This time, the nation’s right behind him.

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