From Ligue 1 to superstardom: Karim Benzema

Karim Benzema Lyon
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The local boy shaped his game in five seasons at Lyon, winning four Ligue 1 titles and being named France's best player before Real came calling

Karim Benzema always had a knack for timing.

The best strikers always do. It’s something innate, they say. It can’t be coached. They arrive early at the near post, they arrive late at the far post. And they’re almost always right on time.

Benzema was always destined to take Ligue 1 by storm, but he couldn’t have picked a better time to kick-start a career that would see him climb to the very top of world football. 

Karim Benzema Lyon Toulouse 12082006

He arrived at Lyon as an eight-year-old, spotted after scoring twice against their academy team for his local boys’ team, with dreams of ending the long wait for the club’s first Ligue 1 title.

Nine years later, when he made his debut as a 17-year-old, that dream had already been realised three times running. Benzema was joining a dynasty. The first four of his five Ligue 1 campaigns would end in league title celebrations.

Lyon had it all. And in Sidney Govou they had one of their own to share it with, too. But all the while there was talk of another, a young prince ready to usurp their local hero.

Karim Benzema Lyon 18032008

“When he was 15, I saw him training and I said to the president, 'Jean-Michel, there's a phenomenon coming through here',” Bernard Lacombe, a special advisor at Lyon, told UEFA’s website. 

“And he thought that the next day [Benzema] could turn pro, even though he was only 15. It was extraordinary because with his attitude and his quality he had the lot.”

From the minute Benzema stepped onto the turf as a 17-year-old in January 2005, the entire city saw what Lacombe did that afternoon two years previously.

Arriving as a substitute against Metz, the teenager’s first real involvement saw him race down the touchline to flick the ball over one defender’s head, lift it delicately over a second challenge, and roll in Bryan Bergougnoux to seal a 2-0 win.

Karim Benzema Lyon 18052008

Benzema would make just six Ligue 1 appearances in his first campaign as a pro. He’d make 13 the following the season, hitting the first league goal of his career with a wonderful take before opening up his body to bend the ball into the far corner.

Two seasons into his Ligue 1 career, Benzema had won more league titles than he had goals.

He hit five more goals from 13 starts in 2006-07, his third season with the club, but it was the following campaign when he really broke through.

Benzema hit 20 goals in 32 starts to end the campaign as the country’s leading goalscorer as Lyon marched to another league title. Benzema was named Ligue 1 Player of the Year, too. 

Karim Benzema Ligue 1 Player of the Year 11052008

In 2008-09 he hit another 17, but the season would end in disappointment as Lyon’s dominance came to an end when Bordeaux pipped them to the title, ending an unprecedented run of seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles.

And the Benzema secret had been out for too long. All of Europe was vying for his signature, including Lyon themselves, with president Jean-Michel Aulas insisting he would stay at the club until at least 2010, unless someone coughed up €100 million.

Karim Benzema Lyon 17052008

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Benzema ranked at no.14 on the inaugural Goal 50 list, which has celebrated the 50 finest players in the game every year since 2008. The world was his oyster.

"With his quality, he could play anywhere," Lionel Messi told Le Parisien. "He is a great goalscorer with his own style. He has talent and is very intelligent.

After 43 goals in 81 starts, and four league championships, he was ready to leave Ligue 1 behind. Real Madrid and Champions League glory lay ahead. The time had come to move on.