Turning It On, After a Long Drought

Updated: 20 June 2014 11:14 IST

Karim Benzema was powerful in France's first FIFA World Cup 2014 match against Honduras. The footballer though has not always had it so easy.

Turning It On, After a Long Drought
France's forward Karim Benzema celebrates after scoring from the penalty spot during a Group E football match between France and Honduras at the Beira-Rio Stadium in Porto Alegre. © AFP

The opportunities and the goals came in rapid succession for Karim Benzema in his first World Cup match.

Headers with space available. A display of sangfroid from the penalty stripe. A cocksure and technically impeccable first-touch drive with his left foot; a ruthless blast from close range with his right that goalkeeper Noel Valladares' fast-twitch talents were not nearly enough to thwart.

It looked easy, perhaps too easy, against Honduras on Sunday, as Benzema scored twice and could well have been credited with a third when his angled shot off the far post rebounded back along the goal line and was mishandled by Valladares, eventually being ruled an own goal.

But a match like the one he played against Honduras has come anything but easy for the 26-year-old Benzema.

Although already on the Real Madrid roster, Benzema failed to make the French squad for the previous World Cup in South Africa, which turned out to be a stroke of good fortune when the team imploded and became personae non gratae in France.

Benzema also failed, for a long stretch, to convince at Real Madrid, where Jose Mourinho, the sharp-tongued coach, once said that as a leader in need of goals, he preferred to go hunting with a dog than with a cat.

The cat was Benzema - all feline grace but unpredictable, difficult to read and to reach. For all his talent, Benzema has also had long stretches of futility, once going 15 matches and, to be brutally precise, 1,222 minutes without scoring for France from June 2012 to October 2013.

Not many center forwards would still get the chance to be a star at a World Cup for a major soccer nation after such a fruitless stretch. But that is exactly where Benzema finds himself as France prepares to face its first real test of this competition against Switzerland on Friday in Salvador.

"I've a bit gone through all the emotions with Benzema in the last two years," said Didier Deschamps, the French manager who was also the captain of the French team that won the World Cup in 1998.

Deschamps benched Benzema for a time last year in favor of Olivier Giroud. But Benzema came around when France needed him most, starting and scoring the second goal in an improbable 3-0 victory over Ukraine last November in the return leg of a playoff that barely saved France's place in the World Cup.

Benzema has kept building from there: scoring 24 goals for Real Madrid this season as it won its 10th (and his first) Champions League title. Globally, he remains in the shadow of Real Madrid forwards Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, but France needs him more than ever with the star winger Franck Ribery out with a back injury.

"I don't know if it did me good or not good," Benzema said this week of his time as a substitute. "What's certain is that I was in a bad phase. That had to change. I had played quite a few matches. There was internal competition. At that moment, there were other forwards who were good, who were scoring. Me, I just kept working, talked with the manager. And I was the first to admit that I was not at  my best."

Hugo Lloris, the French goalkeeper, can sense how much closer Benzema is now. "Karim is a player who needs responsibility, and he has even more with the absence of Franck," Lloris said. "Honduras was a beautiful way for him to start the Cup."

Benzema is the son of a working-class French family of Algerian descent, which might lead one to believe that Zinedine Zidane, the son of working-class Algerian immigrants, was his main inspiration as a boy playing on the grass and cement in Lyon.

That was not the case. Benzema, in his earliest years, had eyes only for Brazil and Ronaldo, the ultimate blend of predatory power and dexterity who was then in his prime.

"My boyhood idol and still my favorite player," Benzema said in an interview with France Football this month. "I learned many things watching his matches, his videos. I devoured them. I still watch DVDs of him sometimes. He remains my only reference. I also watched Zizou, but it's Ronaldo who always made me dream."

That is quite a statement for a youngster who was 10 years old when Zizou, as Zidane is known, scored twice in France's 3-0 victory over Brazil in the final of the World Cup in Stade de France.

"I remember the day of the final: July 12, 1998," Benzema said in the interview. "I was in summer camp with my sister. In the afternoon, we had a soccer tournament, World Cup-style with all the countries. Everybody was totally for France. Everybody wanted to play for Les Bleus in our little game, except for me. I was still for Brazil. But I changed sides after Zizou scored the second goal."

But true happiness in Brazil will come only with more goals and more French redemption after its 2010 campaign in South Africa, which included a training strike by the players and a level of internal tension and backstage intrigue worthy of Louis XIV's court.

© 2014 New York Times News Service

Topics : Football FIFA World Cup 2014
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