Karim Benzema: The most underrated player of all time?

(Image courtesy of AFP/Javier Soriano)

The French striker has been an ever-present in one of the most dominant eras in European football history. He has scored goals at a rate of almost one in two over an 11-year period for Real Madrid alone. There are a number of reasons as to why many don’t consider him an all-time great, but perhaps it is time to elevate him to a higher level, befitting of his talent and achievements within the game. This is a look at why Karim Benzema is the most underrated footballer of all time. 

It was another starring performance in another effective victory against Alavés on Saturday night. Karim Benzema scored once more for Real Madrid in the 2-0 win, effectively deputising for captain Sergio Ramos in terms of both leadership and penalty-taking duties. The Frenchman being the decisive figure has been a theme for Real since the restart, and he has been one of the defining factors in Los Blancos keeping Barcelona at arm’s length — the Catalan club’s woes aside — in pursuit of their first title in three years and only their third since 2008.

This season, and since the Liga’s return in particular, Benzema has been in scintillating form. As Real Madrid have been consistent (albeit not always sparkling) in winning eight from eight post-lockdown, Benzema has led their title charge, with this assist and this goal — complete with trademark Zinedine Zidane seal of approval — providing particular highlights. But why is there still a sense that Benzema’s body of work over the duration of his career is downplayed or even underestimated? There are a few reasons. 

Semra Hunter worked for Real Madrid TV and the club’s media channels between 2013 and 2016, a period in which Benzema played a vital role as La Decima was finally achieved in Lisbon. She now presents LaLiga TV’s coverage, which has been airing to UK viewers via Premier Sports since January, and cited the Frenchman as the prime example of the underappreciated modern day footballer when we spoke prior to La Liga’s resumption.

“He gets a lot of stick. He was getting a lot of stick for a long time because people felt that ‘he’s a number nine, he should be scoring a lot of goals and should be scoring the most goals in the team.’

“I think a lot of the time his quality went under the radar because he was giving so much service to Cristiano Ronaldo, so he was actually doing a lot more work than a typical, straightforward number nine.”

For a long time, among the harshest and most demanding of Madridistas, Benzema bore the brunt of criticism. In the decade just passed, Real had a period of relative turbulence domestically, seeing their great city and Clásico rivals share eight of the 10 league titles between them (Barcelona won seven while Atlético won their first since the turn of the century in 2014). While Barca won the Copa del Rey five times, Real won it just twice.

But Benzema has taken on more responsibility since Ronaldo left — stepping out of a shadow that he remained at least partially engulfed by for the nine years the two spent together at the club since signing in the same money splurging summer of 2009. Only now is his class truly getting the attention or respect it deserves, and aside from the occasional wave of appreciation, his contribution to Madrid’s success has always seemed somewhat diminished compared to what it would be in another team. This was particularly true at the Bernabeu, given the sheer absurdity of Ronaldo’s efforts in the 2010s.

Benzema has long epitomised the modern striker, in a similar albeit much more prolific way to that of Roberto Firmino at Liverpool in the past few seasons. It isn’t merely all about scoring goals, as more and more of them now come from wide areas or midfield sources — again, just ask Firmino — but Benzema has upped his output since Ronaldo’s exit, both in terms of goals (a remarkable 53 of them since the Portuguese left) and assists. He is now the go-to guy for Real, and has taken on a more prominent, leading role with the La Liga title looking to be a formality and Ronaldo’s departure two years ago benefitting him. Benzema has admitted as much since.

Benzema’s contibution often went overlooked as he had to play a supplementary role during the eight years he and Ronaldo shared at Real. Since the latter’s exit for Juventus in 2018, Real’s number nine has stepped up and taken on a more pre-eminent role. (Image courtesy of Getty Images).

At the start of this month, 11 years since Benzema’s arrival in Madrid elapsed, with the anniversary of his original Bernabeu unveiling passing last Thursday. But surely once he retires, he will be valued more than he has long been by Real fans? Benzema is one of the current side’s longest-serving stars, having played under seven different managers spanning three decades and scored in the club’s most recent Champions League final success — against Liverpool in Kiev in 2018 — albeit with the helping hand of Loris Karius.

In the process of likely firing his side to the Liga title this campaign, ‘Big Benz’ has scored 18 goals. In the Spanish golden boot race, the winner of which is awarded with the ‘Pichichi’ trophy, Benzema is second only to Lionel Messi with 18 and also has eight league assists to his name. Real’s French talisman has scored at a better minutes per goal rate than his closest rival in terms of the volume of minutes played — only Iago Aspas of Celta Vigo has played more among the division’s leading hitmen, having scored 13 goals from 3086 league minutes (237 minutes per goal as opposed to Benzema’s 162).

The stats are undeniable. In typically unheralded fashion, Benzema recently became Real’s fifth all-time leading goalscorer. It is no mean feat, particularly considering his scoring rate of almost one in two (245 in 509 appearances for Real) and the fact that he surpassed legendary Hungarian Ferenc Puskás — one of the club’s original mid-20th century Galacticos and modern day goal of the year eponym — in the process. Only Cristiano Ronaldo, Raúl González, Alfredo Di Stéfano and Carlos Alonso González have scored more for the club. There are many players who have achieved much less and over a shorter period of time, who are placed into a higher bracket than Benzema in terms of the very best any generation of football fan has witnessed. 

Yet, as Hunter alluded to, in the past Real fans have criticised the Frenchman for not posting goalscoring numbers worthy of wearing the famous white shirt emblazoned with the number nine. Historically, this shirt and this number are synonymous with leading the team both figuratively as a focal point and literally as a prolific goal-getter. As we know, for a long time, this was the primary role of a certain number seven and in a sense, typical roles were reversed for much of the Ronaldo-Benzema years; with Gareth Bale also chipping in with historic and consistent performances in the half-decade when Real dominated European football.

Real fans are a notoriously hard crowd to please and while he has more notably struck decisively in semi-finals than the showpiece fixtures, Benzema’s game is not merely limited to putting the ball in the back of the net. If you put aside that aspect of the game (as good as it as he has consistently been regardless), Benzema has long typified the qualities that have seen players such as Firmino considered a new brand of 21st century forward, excelling in a variety of areas above and beyond merely goalscoring.

Benzema has often been atypically unselfish for an out-and-out striker, and therefore likely could have scored more goals to boost his impressive numbers over the course of his career had he demonstrated the single minded — or selfish, depending on your perspective — ruthlessness of other attackers of the past 20 years and beyond. A prime example of such unselfishness came during Friday’s win over Alavés, as Benzema added an assist to his first half goal with a beautifully weighted square pass for Marco Asensio to stroke home and all but confirm another win for Los Blancos.

Benzema was the game’s outstanding performer, pivotal in dropping into deeper areas of the pitch than normally expected of a centre forward and picking up the ball to initiate attacks. He excels in both aspects of the game; the Frenchman uses his body effectively to hold up and protect the ball, while also being adept at shooting from range (as already seen) and breaking into the box to ultimately make the correct instinctive decision, be it pass or shot.

Another factor in the general perception of Benzema has to be his international career. In fact, it may well unfortunately be the most decisive factor in the way he is viewed by supporters once his career comes to a close. 

While he signed a club contract extension until 2022 in February and was described by his agent as being “in love with Real Madrid”, it’s very much a different story regarding Benzema’s relationship with the French national team. Based on talent alone, he should have been leading the line when France won their first World Cup in 20 years in 2018. Instead it was Giroud — also sometimes criticised in a similar way to how Benzema has been — leading the line and playing 546 minutes in Les Bleus’ victorious campaign in Russia.

As Benzema was at the peak of his powers alongside Ronaldo in 2015, the infamous ‘Valbuena Case’ arose and, ultimately, ended his international career. Benzema has not featured since the scandal — in which it was alleged he blackmailed his French team mate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape — and so his five-year exodus from the international fold is now likely to be permanent.

The case was later dropped, but as recently as last year, national team manager Didier Deschamps maintained that “it wouldn’t be good for France if Benzema returned”. Whether he would or not (hint: Giroud has long played second fiddle to 22-year-old Tammy Abraham at Chelsea this season, with more attacking reinforcements arriving seemingly by the day) Benzema will finish his career without the achievements with his country to match his hugely impressive club trophy haul.

His club boss and long-time admirer Zidane is now in his second stint as the Real manager and has repeatedly called for his fellow countryman and talismanic striker to be allowed to return to France. The former Lyon man would undoubtedly still have a lot to give and could feasibly stake a claim to warrant a starting place ahead of Antoine Griezmann. Indeed, the thought of Benzema dragging defenders around unselfishly and creating space for goalscoring wide men such as Kylian Mbappé to exploit is a mouthwatering one. But even Benzema has resigned himself to the truth — a return is unlikely.

The career of Karim Benzema is almost unparalleled. Despite having existed in an era in which the consistent levels of two men have entirely skewed our understanding of greatness, Benzema is not spoken of as highly as he should be: among the very best in the tier directly below Messi, Ronaldo and the legendary figures of eras that preceded them. Taking into account the extenuating circumstances of the Valbuena debacle and his place alongside Ronaldo at Real in the overall context of his 16-year career, you could reasonably argue that Benzema has been the third best player on the planet over the majority of that stretch.

He was a victim of the success of one of the game’s most prolific goalscorers, along with the naturally sub serving role he played in order for Ronaldo to flourish and naturally demand the limelight. There is no harm in that, but it is time for football fans — of Real and beyond — to accept that Benzema is deserving of significantly more appreciation as an all-time great than he often gets.

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