DUBAI: The big smile said it all. After 11 long, often trying, years, Karim Benzema was finally the king of the Bernabeu.
When on Aug. 29, 2009 the 21-year-old Frenchman made his La Liga debut for Real Madrid against Deportivo La Coruna, he lined up alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Raul, Xabi Alonso, Marcelo and a host of other Galacticos and internationals.
Most of those stellar names have retired or moved on now, but Benzema is still going.
There were times during his time at Spain’s most successful club when it seemed he would never step out of those long shadows.
On Thursday, Benzema’s two goals against Villarreal confirmed Real Madrid’s record 34th league title.
It would be a stretch to say that the 32-year-old has singlehandedly won La Liga this season, but nor would it be wrong to say he has been the team’s main driving force, leading by example, an inspiration to the youngsters and veterans alike. And, above all, scoring goals.
Since the restart of the season, he has claimed seven goals as Real Madrid have won 10 matches in row.
In the 3-0 win over Valencia in June, he scored what will surely be a contender for La Liga goal of the season, and with one match of the season left, Benzema is only two goals short of Lionel Messi’s 23 in the race for the Pichichi Trophy handed out for the La Liga’s top scorer.
Not that this is anything new for Benzema. Last season, he scored 21 goals to finish, alongside Luis Suarez, joint second behind the Argentine maestro. Manager Zinedine Zidane, who had returned to Real Madrid in March 2019 after the departure of Santiago Solari, knew his worth all along.
“I know what a player Benzema is, everyone knows it. The number of goals he’s scoring is incredible,” Zidane said after Benzema had scored a hat trick against Athletic Bilbao in April of last year.
Over a year later, it is a shame that fans of Real Madrid who often jeered Benzema could not be present on Thursday night to show their appreciation for the man whose goals won La Liga.
So often, it was not who Benzema was that was problem for football’s most demanding set of supporters, but who he wasn’t.
He wasn’t Ronaldo. Or Gareth Bale. Or Modric. Always the bridesmaid.
His time at Madrid has not been without run-ins. Jose Mourinho didn’t trust him and nor did, it seems, many of those who run the French national team.
Today, his critics have been answered and it is hoped Benzema can feel a weight lifted off his shoulders.
Benzema, like his manager Zinedine Zidane, is the son of Algerian immigrants. And like Zidane, he is beloved across Africa and the Middle East perhaps more than in his native France.
When the final whistle blew on Thursday night to signal Real Madrid’s title triumph, a Benzema hashtag trended across Arabic twitter. Congratulations and words of praise were all Benzema’s to enjoy.
Real Madrid President Florentino Perez wasted no time jumping on the Benzema bandwagon by nominating him for an award the club often seem obsessed with. “Benzema should be the Ballon d’Or (winner),” he said. “I have not seen any player have as good a year as him.”
Benzema, in all likelihood, will not win the Ballon d’Or, nor in truth is his case strong enough to do so.
But that should not take away from a truly remarkable campaign, in a truly remarkable Real Madrid career.
Benzema has now won three La Liga titles, for Champions Leagues, two Copa del Rey medals, three Uefa Super Cups and four FIFA Club World Cups, while scoring 248 goals.
The individual awards and the acclaim will perhaps return to other, more high-profile players such as Ronaldo and Messi. But today, as the world stops to heap praise on him, you can be sure of one thing; Benzema will keep on going.