They met, and they talked. Just like that. After five-and-a-half years of silence and arguments through the media, of missed opportunities and stubbornness, too. Karim Benzema and Didier Deschamps spoke again after years without contact, culminating in the striker’s recall to the France squad for this summer’s Euros. Throughout all that time, they didn’t even try to reconnect after they fell out over the Mathieu Valbuena scandal, for which the Real Madrid striker is still expected in court this October.
– Benzema recalled to France squad for Euros
Deschamps and Benzema used to be very close. Upon taking over from Lauren Blanc after France’s disappointing quarterfinal exit from Euro 2012, Deschamps built his first three years at the helm around the enigmatic striker. But after Benzema’s last cap, in Oct. 2015 in Nice against Armenia, things fell apart.
The striker was effectively “exiled” from the national team after a scandal involving himself and Valbuena, a former France and Lyon teammate. Benzema is accused of playing a role in blackmailing Valbuena, allegations he’s consistently denied ahead of this year’s trial. However, as Deschamps has repeated regularly when asked — he was quizzed again on Tuesday night after the squad was announced — his choices “are always guided by one thing only: the good of the French national team.” And for the good of France, both he and Benzema put their pride aside, cleared the air and moved on.
“Everyone can make mistakes,” said Deschamps on Tuesday. “I have already had difficult relationships with some players, but this shirt is above everything else. I took the time to think, to analyse my feelings. My job is not to surprise. I never said that Karim was not eligible for France. We can’t go back in time. The most important is that we saw each other. I needed it, and he did too.
“In my head, I made the decision a while ago. There were many discussions, weighing the pros and cons. It was done very discreetly but it was only between Karim and I,” he continued.
Benzema didn’t understand why he was dropped back in 2015. Deschamps didn’t understand why the Real Madrid forward accused him of “bowing to the pressure of a racist part of France” when he left him out of the squad for Euro 2016. Benzema even said in 2017 that he didn’t think he’d play for France again as long as Deschamps was in charge.
Talking helps to heal wounds, especially these ones, and for these specific Euros across the continent this summer, Deschamps needed Benzema and Benzema wanted to help.
The player’s reaction on social media afterwards was priceless. “So proud of this comeback with the national team and of the faith showed in me. Thank you to my family, to my friends, to my club, to you and to all who have always supported me and given me strength daily,” he wrote.
Faith is the right word, too, for what Deschamps is showing. Without Benzema, France reached the final of Euro 2016 and then won the World Cup in Russia in 2018. Yet Deschamps felt that this particular version of Les Bleus would be so much stronger with the veteran striker in it. There is, of course, a possibility that the Benzema experiment doesn’t work in 2021, though when there is so much quality in the same team, it rarely fails. A front three of Benzema, Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann would be something else, and Deschamps is very much aware of it.
“With quality, intelligence and talent, we can achieve a lot,” he said on Tuesday.
Yet he won’t have much time to work on tactics as Les Bleus don’t convene at Clairefontaine until May 26 and will only have two friendly games, against Wales on June 2 and Bulgaria on June 8, before their tournament begins on June 15. Remember: France are in the toughest group, with Germany, Hungary and Portugal. Yet Deschamps has so many options now, with Kingsley Coman and Ousmane Dembele also in the squad. He has so many different tactical systems he could use, the 4-2-3-1 seems the most fitted but the 4-3-3 could be useful like the 4-4-2 or even the 4-3-2-1.
More importantly, the manager knows that it should be a smooth return. Before recalling the Real Madrid striker, Deschamps consulted senior players (including Raphael Varane and Hugo Lloris) in the France squad. It was important to know that the dressing room would welcome Karim back. Asked on Tuesday if he has assurances that Benzema’s return would not disturb the squad, the head coach was very clear. “I will be brief here. You have your answer within the choices that I have made. Otherwise I would have made other choices.” Reading between the lines: if the other players had not been on board, I would not have called him back.
Deschamps has always been big on team unity and team spirit in every job. He won the World Cup partly because of that. Aymeric Laporte didn’t seem to mesh or integrate with the squad when called in, so he left him at home. Benjamin Mendy was judged to lack the right attitude, consistently arriving late for team meetings or missing physio appointments, so he’s not been called up since the 2018 triumph in Russia.
With Benzema, the dressing room wanted him back. He’s played with some of them during his career (Lloris, Paul Pogba, Varane, Moussa Sissoko, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud), while others like Presnel Kimpembe, Mbappe or Coman grew up watching him. For them, at 33, he will be a leader, the big brother who can help them improving and who will guide them through what promises to be a tough competition.
Back in France, the news has blown everything else out of the news cycle! From Tuesday morning, when the news started to leak, through the evening when Deschamps officially confirmed it, it’s been the only topic of conversation up and down the nation. Is it good, is it bad, was it necessary, will it pay off, is it a gamble… so many questions asked.
Overall, the majority of fans seemed happy and excited to see Benzema back in the fold. After the season he’s having with Real Madrid (22 goals and eight assists in 33 league games, an exceptional return), his recall is totally deserved; at this point, France just can’t wait to see it. To see Karim Benzema wearing the blue shirt again, with his new number: 19. To see him alongside Mbappe, Griezmann and the others. To see him at the Euros, taking part again in a big international tournament, for the first time since 2014. And to hopefully see him shine and win. After all, that’s why he is back.