The scrabble kings of France find a word to scare England… Benzema
21:59 GMT, 4 June 2012
In an individualistic football culture, where players rope themselves off behind headphones and computer screens, there is something cheerily communal in the games of Scrabble that French players and staff have had at their Clairefontaine base.
France manager Laurent Blanc has been an active participant. He thus knows the value of a high-scoring seven-letter word such as Benzema.
Karim Benzema scored 31 goals for Real Madrid last season. It is a sentence worth repeating, though perhaps not if you are Roy Hodgson or an increasingly scrutinised England centre half.
Danger man: Karim Benzema (centre) will pose a big threat to England
But for Cristiano Ronaldo. also at Real Madrid, and Lionel Messi at Barcelona, Benzema may have had this fact recognised more widely.
They are aware of it in Spain, however, and they are sure of it in France. The striker also scored the opener in the Euro 2012 qualifier in Albania last September — one of three goals in qualification. He is the top scorer in Blanc’s low-goals squad.
According to Zinedine Zidane, Benzema has developed into France’s most important player. He will start as France’s lone forward against England, and Joleon Lescott can recall Benzema’s slick strike at Wembley in November 2010.
Benzema is no longer the teenage prodigy he was at Lyon, where he was pursued by every major club in Europe, including Manchester United, but has clearly rediscovered some of the form, touch and confidence which marked him out then and which persuaded Real to pay 30million for him three years ago. He also scored in two games against Barcelona last season.
‘He’s taken on another dimension,’ says former France and Arsenal midfielder Emmanuel Petit. ‘Last year everyone thought he would leave Madrid. What he’s done is exceptional when you think how much pressure there is at Madrid.
‘It’s the mark of a great player. He’s gone up a level.’
All smiles: Benzema (left) with Franck Ribery during a France training session
Against Iceland in France’s first warm-up game, Benzema was sharp and ready to be dangerous had the service not been so ponderous. His deflected shot led to France’s first goal. He was similarly bright against Serbia last Thursday.
At 24, he is hardly old, but he says that he has grown up while also slimming down.
Last summer Benzema readied himself for this season by losing more than a stone. He looked at himself in the mirror and went on a personal fitness drive in Italy. Having made the Euro 2008 finals while at Lyon — two games, no goals, France bottom of their group — Benzema was overlooked for the World Cup.
It came at the end of his first year in Madrid, when he scored eight goals in La Liga. Real president Florentino Perez had personally travelled to Benzema’s house to sign a player they thought would be the new Ronaldo — not Cristiano. Perez had given Benzema a six-year contract, but the player was a first-year flop.
‘When I left Lyon I was a very young boy and very shy,’ Benzema explained recently.
In form: Benzema at Real Madrid
‘I arrived alone, it was the first time I left my home and Lyon. I had to adapt to a new city and a new team. I also had a lot of pressure because I was considered a star and had to prove it.
‘Today I am a more mature person and player. I am calmer, more serene and physically stronger. I have learned to control the pressure in big games more.’
Two seasons under Jose Mourinho have had a profound effect. Initially, though, even Mourinho’s powers of motivation slid off Benzema’s slumped shoulders. Just 18 months ago, with Mourinho’s preferred striker, Gonzalo Higuain, injured, the manager said: ‘If I can’t go hunting with a dog, I’ll go hunting with a cat.’
Benzema was portrayed as a workshy pussy, even team-mates commented on his lack of, well, everything. On another occasion, at a Real training session, Mourinho was overheard calling Benzema ‘half-asleep’.
Having woken up, Benzema told L’Equipe last week: ‘When he (Mourinho) came to Madrid I had a bad back, I had put on some weight and was disappointed at not going to the World Cup. But I felt he was fond of me, despite what he said later.
‘He has never let me go. Even when he didn’t play me, or trained me very hard, or when he slammed me in press conferences. Mourinho angered me to toughen me up. Finally that work has paid off.
‘At Madrid, I am making double the effort than I did in Lyon. I am working like mad.’
Physical evidence of Mourinho’s doubt came in the shape of Emmanuel Adebayor, who arrived on loan at the Bernabeu from Manchester City last January. But that coincided with Benzema’s return to vitality and, 16 months on, this season has ended with speculation that it is Higuain who will leave. Now Benzema refers to Mourinho as a ‘father figure’.
Previous: Benzema scored for France against England at Wembley in 2010
Benzema has cemented his position at Real; he has done the same with France. Former national coach Raymond Domenech preferred to take Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Sidney Govou, Djibril Cisse and Andre-Pierre Gignac to the World Cup in South Africa. France scored one goal in three games between them, finished bottom of the group and staged a player mutiny.
None of that quintet have made Blanc’s squad for Ukraine and Poland. Benzema scored the first competitive goal of the new Blanc era, in Sarajevo against Bosnia-Herzegovina, and, even at 24, only Florent Malouda and Franck Ribery have more caps than Benzema’s 44. Of the 16 squads in the finals, only Poland’s have fewer caps between them than France’s.
‘It’s a new team and I’m more experienced,’ Benzema said. ‘I have to talk more.’
The listless pussycat has become an enthusiastic leader and France’s focal point.
Benzema’s seven letters spell out a warning for England.