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Who Is Karim Benzema, The World-Class Striker At Heart Of France Roster Drama?

Though he was injured on the eve of the World Cup in Qatar, France's Karim Benzema is reportedly healthy, leaving open the possibility of a return to Les Bleus' roster. But Benzema's story is a complicated one.

By Andrew Woodin
French footballer Karim Benzema gestures as he arrives at La Reunion's Roland-Garros airport in Sainte-Marie

At first glance, it’s not too remarkable that France has made it to the 2022 FIFA World Cup Final in Qatar, but reaching the pinnacle of international football sans several key starters such as Paul Pogba, Presnel Kimpembe, Christopher Nkunku and N’Golo Kante truly is. Suffering just one loss with their defeat to Tunisia in the Group Stage, Les Bleus have looked every bit the formidable foe as advertised prior to losing their stars, and though the already stacked squad strikes fear into the heart of its opponents, one player’s controversial return to the pitch has generated quite a stir leading up to the final match: Karim Benzema.

If you’re unfamiliar with just who the world class striker is, his bonkers resume sounds more like a Marvel superhero’s stats rather than that of an actual human. Having played for Real Madrid since 2009, Benzema has been named La Liga's Best Player twice, been named to La Liga Team of the Season four times, finished as the Champions League top scorer five times, earned the title of French Player of the Year four times, and last but not least, is the reigning winner of both the UEFA Player of the Year and the Ballon d’Or. He’s the guy whose sublime talents have helped fans of Los Blancos turn the page on club legend Cristiano Ronaldo.

RELATED: How To Sound Smart While Watching The World Cup With Friends

Still haven’t heard of him? Maybe this tiny, little nugget will jog your memory: Benzema was found guilty last year of complicity in a 2015 plot to extort former France teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape. Oh yeah … That guy.

Benzema has continued to deny involvement in the scheme and appealed the French court's verdict, though he dropped that appeal in June, according to Reuters

When the scandal broke in 2015, Benzema was suspended from France's squad and subsequently wouldn’t see one minute of playing time for the national team for six years. But if the situation wasn’t dire already, it was about to devolve further. After being left off France's roster for the 2016 Euros tournament, Benzema, who’s of Algerian descent, accused coach Didier Deschamps of “bowing to the pressure of a racist part of France,” according to the Sporting News. Following Benzema’s comments, Deschamps’ house was ransacked by invaders who canvased his house in graffiti.  

“It’s a stain,” Deschamps said last year about the attack, the Sporting News reported. "Even if with time it calms down a bit, I can't forget. It's not just about Karim Benzema. There are statements by other people too that have led to this violent act, which affects my family.”

"Saying certain things necessarily leads to verbal or physical aggression,” continued Deschamps. “I suffer the consequences. We cannot forget. I cannot forget. I will never forget."

However, in June 2021, Benzema was summoned back into the French fold and given a new opportunity to make his mark on the international stage. In the 2020 Euros (which were held in 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic), Benzema notched four goals in four matches. He'd add three more tallies during World Cup qualifiers. And his club level form was just as scintillating, scoring an eye-popping 44 goals in all competitions for Real Madrid (off 46 appearances) in 2021-2022, on his way to securing the Ballon D'or. It seemed a near certainty that he'd carry that brilliant form into the World Cup in Qatar, but on the eve of the tournament, he was ruled out of action with a thigh injury and sent home. But France never named a replacement to their roster, meaning a return was theoretically possible.

Fast forward nearly a month and Benzema has reportedly returned to training with Real Madrid (and just successfully participated in a friendly for the club), raising the stunning prospect that he could suit up for France in time for Sunday's final against Argentina. But that's far from a certainty, especially given the frosty relationship with Deschamps, who's still guiding Le Bleus. 

Ahead of the semifinal match against Morocco, Deschamps was asked about the possibility of bringing back the sensational forward, only to dial up an opaque response that seemed straight out of Bill Belichick’s or Gregg Popovich’s media playbook.

"I take care of 24 players here," declared Deschamps. "I don't take care of those who are not here, like Kimpembe or Pogba as well. I'm not going to talk about things that do not occupy my day-to-day."

That hasn't stopped the speculation. Spanish outlet Marca reported that French president Emmanuele Macron has even offered to personally bring Benzema to the World Cup Final, but it's not at all clear if either Benzema or Deschamps want that. 

In just a couple of days, the world will know. 

Can't get enough soccer action? After the World Cup is over, be sure to watch Premier League coverage on USA Network, featuring Premier League Mornings, select matches, and Premier League Goal Zone (check listings for games/schedule). And catch up on all the action on Peacock.

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