FEATURE | European Player of the Season, 1st: Karim Benzema

This article is part of Get Football’s European Player and Coach of the Season series. Read every profile and see the full ranking right here.

Responsibility maketh a man, they say. What they never tell you is the path a man can go when he does not have (enough) responsibility on his shoulders. Of course, for some, it is easier to work in the shadows, away from the noise. Such people thrive when others around them shoulder the spotlight and pressure that come with responsibility. It allows them to work in silence and give their best without distractions and raised stakes. For some others, the responsibility is exactly what brings out the best in them. They want that pressure, those increased stakes, that spotlight that makes them come alive and jolts them into heights they have the potential to reach. It is what makes them thrive. They relish it. You see a different beast when that happens. Overwhelming evidence suggests that this is, in fact, Karim Benzema.

Between 2008 and 2009, Karim Benzema was the most sought-after youngster in Europe. Nobody – who seemed transferable – was subject to more interest from all the big players in the transfer market. He was the crown prince, the anointed one who would dazzle the world, Thierry Henry’s heir and the next Ronaldo Nazario. The comparisons were well deserved, Benzema was playing like a veteran in a Lyon team that continued to dominate France and go toe-to-toe with Europe’s elite. He was already the go-to guy when the team was stuck, the one expected to elevate them when they needed it. A 20-goal season had followed a 30-goal season, as he racked up a bunch of individual and team accolades – a league golden boot, league player of the year and top scorer in the Coupe de France which Lyon won; one of seven trophies he won there. He showed a unique combination of skill, elegance, finesse and finishing; the complete package.

When a transfer finally happened in the summer of 2009, however, it did not come with the fanfare expected. Real Madrid won the race for his signature over Manchester United, to the dismay of Sir Alex Ferguson who had wanted him for years. For a transfer tussle between two such heavyweights, the lack of fanfare should have been surprising. It wasn’t though, and it was perhaps a sign of things to come. In the same window, Real Madrid broke the world record for transfers twice, for two former World Player of the Year award winners. Benzema’s move simply wasn’t the biggest story, nor was it second. He was already playing second fiddle in terms of responsibility, and his debut season ended up being forgettable. He did not start up to 50% of Real Madrid’s league games, and while he could only manage nine goals in all competitions, one of his main rivals for minutes – Gonzalo Higuain – scored 29 goals. Of course, he was not merely signed for the present. He was a 10+ year signing, so everyone knew to be patient. But it is not enough reason why his forgettable season did not get much attention either. The spotlight was just elsewhere. He had to grow into responsibility, to wrestle the spotlight. For almost a decade after that, he did not. Every time it looked like it was finally time for him to at least share the spotlight and shoulder more responsibility, there was someone else there. It is likely what made him never reach the level he was destined for at that time.

No, it was not because he had to sacrifice himself for Cristiano Ronaldo – he had so many chances on his own to rack up great numbers too, and he did score 20+ goals in six consecutive seasons. But there was always that sense that Benzema had more to give that hadn’t been tapped into. While people were focused on his role and how he brought others into the game, they missed the obvious. Karim needed to be that guy again, the centre of the project. He needed to be the one with all the pressure, to be playing with the weight of the world on his shoulders, with expectations through the roof. He needed to be the guy everyone would immediately look to and blame when things didn’t go well. He needed to be the guy everyone looked to when the team was stuck and/or in trouble. When you play with Cristiano Ronaldo, you can never be that guy. Ronaldo is a colossus, a pressure magnet, the standard scapegoat when things go wrong, the target. He was too much of a global superstar for anyone to look to anyone else. And the more Ronaldo failed or succeeded, the more the stakes rose.

Since Ronaldo’s departure in summer 2018 – nine years after they both arrived – responsibility has finally fallen on Karim Benzema’s shoulders, and it’s a lot. Gareth Bale’s run-ins with the club hierarchy and Eden Hazard’s struggles since his €100 million move in 2019 have only increased the pressure on Benzema. He was given the impossible responsibility of leading Real Madrid and its wide-eyed youngsters into a new era. Boy, has he delivered! It is a challenge that he has relished. He has played with a newfound fire and finally shown the level that many expected him to have reached by 2015. Over the past three seasons, he has played at a world-class level but it is this season that he has completely brought heaven down to earth.

A season that began with the disappointment of not landing Mbappé, which only drove the pressure and responsibility on Benzema to dizzying heights, is ending with a comfortable league title, a Champions League final after what has been possibly the craziest knockout run in history and Real Madrid solidly positioned for another era of dominance domestically and in Europe. Benzema has done it without the two players in the squad who are worth €200 million combined. He has been a mentor and leader on the pitch for a host of youngsters, many of whom had been written off. He has been a reference like all the greats. He has led from the front, playing the best football of his career and delivering his best ever numbers.

Benzema has delivered a season worthy of comparison with most of the greatest ever and is now firmly the Ballon d’Or favourite. More than anything, he has made everybody around him play better. His ability to bring others into the game without losing anything himself is almost unmatched. Nearly every midfielder and forward, who has been a regular in the team, has played at a higher level. A lot of it can be attributed to Benzema’s influence on the pitch; he is the orchestra conductor that sees pictures no one else on the pitch sees, directing a group that trusts him because they know he’s a world-class artist. They know that whatever he paints will be irresistible so they play their part.

He always had the tools to produce a season like this, everyone knows. The fact he is 34 now might make one wonder what could have been if he peaked like this a decade earlier. But maybe he wouldn’t ever have been this good if he was entering this level at 24. Maybe what we see is a sum of a decade’s worth of experience, from a man who clearly absorbed a lot from things around him. Maybe this exact kind of responsibility is the only kind that could have propelled him to this level; a vet leading a group filled with youngsters into a new era of success. What is clear is that responsibility has elevated him to this level. Responsibility indeed maketh a man.

Astorre Cerebrone

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