The news most French football fans never expected to hear became reality on Tuesday evening.
Karim Benzema – the outcast of Les Bleus – has received a dramatic recall to the national side at the age of 33, ahead of the delayed Euro 2020 tournament.
As reports began to emerge from the French capital via L’Equipe and LeParisien that morning, mouths were agape as inside information suggested that head coach Didier Deschamps was about to pull off the sensational U-turn.
To understand the magnitude of such a move, it helps to scan back through some of the statements which came out after Benzema was banished from the France set-up in 2015.
Karim Benzema has had the last laugh with France recalling him in a shocking U-turn
L’Equipe first broke the news that Benzema was being considered for a sensational return
French Football President Noel Le Graet had said definitively of Benzema: ‘His time with France is over,’ while manager Didier Deschamps completely distanced himself from the striker.
The issue arose when Benzema was alleged to have played a role in the ‘sex-tape blackmail’ of his former international team-mate Mathieu Valbuena.
During the investigation over the alleged blackmail plot, the then French Prime Minister Manuel Valls stated: ‘A great athlete should be exemplary. If he is not, he has no place in the France team.
Benzema is alleged to have pressured former France national team-mate Valbuena (left) to pay blackmailers who threatened to reveal an intimate video in which Valbuena featured
Benzema leaves a court house in Versailles in November 2015 when the scandal emerged
BENZEMA’S RISE SINCE FRANCE EXILE…
After being banished from the France set-up, Benzema knuckled down with Madrid and transformed into one of the sharpest strikers on the planet.
Without international football and the rigours that come with it; long distance travel, extra football, increased risk of injury – Benzema started to flourish.
As a result, in the years spent in the wilderness away from France, his trophy cabinet soon stacked up:
La Liga title (2016-17) (2019-20)
Spanish Super Cup (2017)
Champions League (2015-16) (2016-17) (2017-18)
UEFA Super Cup (2015) (2016) (2017)
FIFA Club World Cup (2015) (2016) (2017)
‘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.’
Benzema vehemently denies all allegations against him but his suspension from the France squad was confirmed.
Ever since there had been no way back for the Real Madrid ace… until now.
He will stand trial on the charge of conspiracy to attempt blackmail, the prosecutor’s office said, though his France recall will now feature before this. The date for the trial is set after this summer’s tournament, on 20-22 October.
To his credit, Benzema had never given up hope of pulling on the national shirt again and frequently spoke with defiance and passion about his determination to end his international career only on his own terms.
Benzema responded to Le Graet by saying: ‘I, and I alone will put an end to my international career.’
He even threw down the gauntlet further, by adding: ‘If you think I’m finished let me play for one of the countries for which I am eligible and we will see.’
Benzema had been threatening to declare for Algeria due to his heritage, but the complexities of having played competitively for France – 81 times – meant this was not possible.
Now, however, Benzema has simply continued to be too good for too long and Deschamps can no longer overlook this glaring fact.
Didier Deschamps had remained resolute in his refusal to pick Benzema, but has now U-turned
Like a fine wine, the former Lyon wonderkid is getting better with age. Benzema, 33, is the only player for Madrid who has properly stood up and filled the void in the years following Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure to Juventus.
During his almost six years in the wilderness away from the national side, Benzema has won no fewer than 12 major trophies with Madrid – including three consecutive Champions League titles from 2016-18 – and been instrumental in each.
This season Benzema has 29 goals in all competitions for Zinedine Zidane’s side, including 22 in La Liga and a further six in the Champions League.
He is constantly a man for the big occasion, and France legend Zidane’s relentless championing of Benzema has helped somewhat in soothing the national stance.
World Cup winners France will enter this summer’s European championships as favourites given their recent meteoric rise, but Deschamps is aware that Benzema can still add an extra dimension of quality to his forward line.
The news, however, does spell bad news for Olivier Giroud. During Benzema’s years of exile the Chelsea man has enjoyed a regular spot in the national team, and racked up six starts and seven appearances at the Russia World Cup despite not scoring a single goal.
Benzema’s recall spells bad news for Olivier Giroud (right), and the pair have a history of unrest
The return of Benzema would undoubtedly threaten his position, and may cause a certain degree of awkwardness due to words which have been exchanged in the past.
In March 2020, during an Instagram live stream with YouTuber Mohamed Henni, Benzema made controversial remarks about Giroud, after the subject came up of Giroud replacing him in the Les Bleus ranks.
After a rough translation, he called Giroud ‘karting’ standard while he referred to himself as ‘Formula 1’ – a conversation which would prove to quickly make headlines and add to the growing certainty that Benzema would not feature for France again.
Now, after both being called up for the European championships, the pair have to co-exist harmoniously as France bid to add to their trophy cabinet once more.
OTHER STARS TO HAVE BEEN SHUNNED BY LES BLEUS
For Eric Cantona and David Ginola there was no way back.
In 1996 when Aime Jacquet picked his squad for the Euros in England, Cantona had just been voted Footballer of the Year and won his fourth Premier League title but Jacquet was unmoved by a clamour to recall him.
Cantona had been the first captain Jacquet named when he took over the French team but the armband was taken from him when he was banned for assaulting a spectator at Selhurst Park and France had been on a 20-game unbeaten run in his absence.
Ginola had fallen out of favour with Jacquet long before.
In 1993 in front of 50,000 at the Parc des Princes he had come on as a late substitute for Jean-Pierre Papin in a game against Bulgaria which France needed to draw to qualify for the following summer’s World Cup.
A short free-kick was played to him and with the score at 1-1 all he needed to do was keep it in the corner and run down the clock. Instead he over-hit a cross into an almost empty penalty area and Bulgaria broke to score and win the game and leave France watching USA ’94 on the telly.
Jacquet was France coach Gerard Houllier’s assistant and could be seen head in hands cursing Ginola, who was publicly blamed, admonished and never brought back into the international fold.
When Jacquet named that Euro 96 squad, also ruthlessly leaving out Papin and including a young Zinedine Zidane, he said: ‘I have two priorities – to obtain the best possible result at Euro 96 and work for the future, for the 1998 World Cup in France.’ To be fair to him, that worked out OK.