Sex video storm & no Euro 2016 - Benzema’s final chance to end nightmare season on a high

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The Champions League final will offer the striker the opportunity to end what has been a trying campaign on a high ahead of a summer of unwelcome inactivity

What on the face of things might have been regarded as Karim Benzema’s greatest campaign on an individual basis to date threatens to peter out with a whimper.

The Frenchman has contributed 24 goals in 27 Liga matches for Real Madrid, the best return of his career for the Bernabeu club in a campaign in which he has played fewer games than any other since his debut season in Spain, 2009-10.

Saturday’s Champions League final against Atletico Madrid offers the final chance for the 28-year-old to take satisfaction from what has been, in actual fact, a nightmare year.

On the field in Spain, things might have gone relatively smoothly but for the persistent thigh troubles that fragmented his campaign. He largely avoided the criticism that was targeted at both Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, and was regularly decisive – even scoring in six successive league outings at one point. 

Away from the pitch, though, trouble has long been brewing.

The centre forward should have been gearing up to be France’s No.9 at Euro 2016, to take place in his homeland. Instead, he can plan for the beach and a summer of unwelcome inactivity. 

Benzema has become an increasingly controversial figure in France. The latest legal storm became public knowledge last November, when he was indicted for his part in allegedly conspiring to blackmail fellow international player Mathieu Valbuena. Benzema was quick to protest his innocence, yet became an easy target of critics, of which he has many.

The striker’s case was not aided by historical context. Since the 2002 World Cup, the national side has been treated almost with a sense of shame by the French public. The culmination of this was the infamous strike on the bus at Knysna during the South Africa World Cup in 2010.

Benzema, who had at that time 27 caps as a 23-year-old, was not part of that fiasco under Raymond Domenech, having only a matter of weeks earlier been accused of sleeping with an underage prostitute – a charge he would later be cleared of in 2014 due to insufficient evidence. 

Nevertheless, this incident tarnished the striker’s reputation in the eyes of the French public and the emerging sex tape scandal simply confirmed, in the national consciousness, at least, the perception of Benzema being a character not fit to represent the country.

Nationality is a thorny issue in France due to the country’s high immigrant population, and so when Benzema, who was born in Lyon but is of Algerian heritage, failed to sing the national anthem in the warm-up matches prior to World Cup 2014, it provoked a minor national outrage. As such, another tabloid scandal was the last thing the striker needed.

“A great athlete should be exemplary. If he is not, he has no place in the France team,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared. “There are so many kids, so many youngsters in our suburbs that relate to great athletes. They wear the blue jersey, the colours of France, which are so important in these moments.”

Such comments have provoked a counteroffensive from the Benzema camp, with lawyer Eric Dupond-Moretti arguing back: "I must say that in the case of the sex tape, I was very shocked by the statements of the Prime Minister. 

“To my knowledge, Didier Deschamps has not asked the Prime Minister to reconstruct his government, which nevertheless contains two convicts. This is a serious attack on the presumption of innocence.”

Nevertheless, under judicial review, Benzema was not be permitted to join up with the France squad as contact with Valbuena was not permitted, and head coach Didier Deschamps was not willing to call the Madrid forward as a point of principle.

The review was only lifted in early March but it was thought that it may be sufficient to allow the striker to seduce Deschamps to his talents. However, his relatively disappointing scoring record for his country combined with his alleged misdemeanours, which is remains under investigation for, was ultimately too much of a hurdle to overcome.

Deschamps had hinted at the forthcoming decision in an interview with L’Equipe on March 12. “He will never be a great goal scorer, even if that’s expected of him,” he explained, but while he would go on to defend the “constructive” qualities of the attacker, even at that early stage there was a feeling that Benzema would have no role to play come the summer.

A month later, the inevitable news broke.

“It was a difficult decision to make, as you can well imagine,” French FA (FFF) president Noel Le Graet told L'Equipe.

“I repeat that I have affection for the boy, but we had to preserve the France team, the collective. During the Euros, we would have been in the following situation: ‘Benzema succeeds or Benzema fails.’

"Now this is a group that will succeed or fail. It was the right time to focus our attention, that of the coach and the media, on the other players. They are the ones that will play, and they deserve it."

While Le Graet protested that it was a “hard” decision to come by, Antoine Griezmann’s form for Atletico Madrid no doubt made it simpler.

“Have you seen the youngsters we have? Rarely has there been so much talent in attack for France,” he continued. “Frankly, I'm not worried.”

Benzema was said to be “very, very sad” about the decision, but responded well on the field, scoring three times and creating four more goals in the six games since.

Euro 2016 remains an open wound for the attacker, but helping Madrid overcome Atletico on Saturday to lift his second European Cup would provide a balm ahead of what promises to be a long summer.


 

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