x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Benzema the silent assassin

It is easy to get lost in the shuffle when you are only your new club's fourth biggest signing of the summer.

Though he is the second-most expensive French player ever, Karim Benzema's arrival at the Santiago Bernabeu has been overshadowed by the arrival of Kaka, from AC Milan, and Cristiano Ronaldo, from Manchester United.
Though he is the second-most expensive French player ever, Karim Benzema's arrival at the Santiago Bernabeu has been overshadowed by the arrival of Kaka, from AC Milan, and Cristiano Ronaldo, from Manchester United.

It is easy to get lost in the shuffle when you are only your new club's fourth biggest signing of the summer. Sure, you may be the second most expensive Frenchman in history (after some guy named Zinedine Zidane) and you may have cost ?35 million (Dh210m), but then two of the other new faces at your club cost twice as much as you did. But then Karim Benzema knows all about keeping a low profile, at least off the pitch. From an early age you get used to being somewhat starved of attention when you are one of nine brothers. And that is the way he likes it. Speak softly and carry a big stick. Be humble. Be happy with what you have.

Which may explain why, until a few months ago, he lived at home with his parents, in the house he grew up in. Sure he was making several million euros a year, but why move? After all, he had a bed, a television, three home-cooked meals a day and, most of all, the love of his family around him. What more could he possibly need? Some have suggested that his low-key personality is a by-product of his Muslim faith (and, indeed, like teammates Lassana Diarra and Mahamadou Diarra he is fasting during Ramadan). Whatever the case may be, it is a formula that works for him.

Of course, humility and anonymity are not easy to find when you are blessed with his set of skills. When Lyon plucked him from his local team Bron at the age of nine, he cried with embarrassment. Sure, he was excited to be joining one of the best academies in Europe. At the same time, he did not want to leave his friends. Or, for that matter, become big-headed. Maybe that is why, after he scored 38 goals in half a season with Lyon's Under 16 team, his youth team coach sent him up to the U18s when he was still just 15.

He was so laid back, so respectful, so low key, he needed a challenge. As it happened, the next level up was not much of a challenge either. He notched 12 goals in 14 games before Lyon realized that, for him to find his level, he had to go up another rung. And thus he made his debut in the first team less than a month after his 17th birthday. The arsenal of skills which made him a potential superstar were there for all to see.

They say power is nothing without control and he had plenty of both. The strength, pace, balance and grace with which he accelerated across the pitch (coupled - inevitably - with his shaved head) prompted comparisons to Ronaldo, the original one. He may have lacked the Brazilian's close control, but his ability to find space and get his shot on target with power and accuracy were eerily reminiscent of the man they call "The Phenomenon".Lyon's plan was to bring him along slowly. And, for a while, it worked. But by the middle of the 2006-07 season it became clear that the club were cutting off their nose to spite their face.

Out went John Carew, the incumbent centre-forward, sold to Aston Villa. Fred, the Brazilian striker with the big price tag, increasingly found himself on the bench. The focus of Lyon's 4-3-3 became Benzema. At the end of that season he won his first cap for France and the offers started to pour in. Jean Michel Aulas, the Lyon president was brutally honest: "I accept that sooner or later I will have to sell him. But I am not in football just for the money. I want to get some good years out of Karim before I let him loose to achieve what I know he will achieve." It was a wise choice. Over the next two years he would score 54 goals in 95 appearances for Lyon. He was no longer a striker with a bright future. He was one of the continent's most sought after centre-forwards.

Which is where he is now. Still just 21, Benzema has barely scratched the surface of his potential. And with Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Raul supplying the chances, you can expect that potential to be fully tapped, starting tonight against Deportivo La Coruna. Gabriele Marcotti is an expert on European football and is based in London. gmarcotti@thenational.ae Real Madrid v Deportivo La Coruna, KO 10pm, Aljazeera Sport +2