Karim Benzema steps out of the shadows as Real Madrid win La Liga

Real Madrid's players celebrate winning the Liga title after the Spanish League football match between Real Madrid CF and Villarreal CF at the Alfredo di Stefano stadium in Valdebebas, on the outskirts of Madrid. (AFP)
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Updated 18 July 2020

Karim Benzema steps out of the shadows as Real Madrid win La Liga

  • The Frenchman’s 21 goals have played leading role in a record 34th championship

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.

Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, center, and Villareal’s Javi Ontiveros, right, during their Spanish La Liga match at the Alfredo di Stefano stadium in Madrid. (AP)

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.

Saudi Arabia celebrates 20th year of first Olympic medal win

Updated 28 September 2020

Saudi Arabia celebrates 20th year of first Olympic medal win

  • Hadi Souan scooped silver in Sydney at 29; athlete says success was for whole nation

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia’s first Olympic medal win 20 years ago inspired a generation of athletes and was a catalyst for the development of sport, according to the president of the Kingdom’s Olympic committee.

Hadi Souan won silver in the 400m hurdles at the Sydney Games in 2000.

The accomplishment was one of many in a long and successful journey for the athlete, who became a board member of the Saudi Arabian Athletics Federation (SAAF), the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee (SAOC) Assembly, a member of the Olympic Council of Asia Athlete Commission, sports and events manager at Qiddiya Investment Company, a member of the Saudi Sports Arbitration Center, and a member of the SAOC’s International Relations Committee.

“Today we celebrate Souan’s achievement, which inspired a generation of Saudi athletes and was a catalyst for the development of sport in the Kingdom,” said the SAOC’s president, Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal. “It gives me great pleasure to see sport thriving in Saudi Arabia. We are committed to ensuring that this trend continues and that the Kingdom’s next generation enjoys the benefits of participating in sport, both in Saudi Arabia and at major global sporting events.”

Souan started out as a footballer but took up athletics in PE class, winning second place in a school championship. He qualified to compete at the Kingdom level and went on to become a national team member in less than a year.

He started with the high jump, then decathlon and finally found himself taking on the 400m hurdles.

He trained under Egyptian coach Mohammed Thu Alfaqqar from 1991, under the Americans until 1994, and under 1968 Olympic gold medalist Lee Evans. But the best place Souan remembers training at was UCLA.

“It is a sport and artistic society indeed,” he said. “We spoke, ate, slept, and even relaxed for sport. These little things and the different sleeping habits here and there made me suffer a bit when I came back from the States, but we got used to it and I knew it made a difference in my lifestyle and mentality-wise.”

Souan also trained the European way in Paris under a Russian coach and France’s Amadou Dia Ba. “Hence I started to learn the difference between European and American schools,” he added. The US schools concentrated on endurance, while the French focused on speed.

He was grateful for the exposure to different cultures while training abroad with elite athletes, especially at a time when there was limited social awareness about the importance of sport.

“When I started training with US 400m hurdler Kevin Young, who clocked an Olympic record of 46.78 seconds at the 1992 Barcelona Games and which remains unbeaten until now, I felt that I could do what he is doing. I only need to be determined, disciplined, and committed and everything from there started to become imaginable. I started to see myself winning and when the time came and toward the end of the race I knew I was getting there but I wasn’t first. First place went to American Angelo Taylor who won in 47.50 seconds, while I did 47.53.”

He remembers the winning moment and never expected how the country would react to his achievement. It was overwhelming. 

He modestly said it was not his success alone, that it was a success for the whole nation and all of his team headed by the former SAAF president Prince Nawaf bin Mohammed, agent Emanuel Hudson, and coach John Smith. They all worked hard to create the right environment for him to deliver the medals.

“We were welcomed by the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, by the former president of General Presidency of Youth Welfare Prince Sultan bin Fahd, and everyone was happy and proud of what we did. I knew then that what I was fortunate to do was not simple at all and, luckily, was appreciated. I believe everyone started to look up for Saudis in athletics and watch out for similar future talents.”

The beauty of sport, he added, was its spirit and the values that were learned and developed through years of training, competing, winning and losing. 

“Although Taylor won first place we all, as a sports community, remain friends and also competed afterwards in several matches where he again took first place and I came second again. He came from a distance running race which allowed him to master his skills at the end of the 400m hurdles events, his approach was and still is just amazing.”

Souan won the silver medal aged 29 at his second Olympic appearance, in what he felt was perfect timing as he might not have been as successful at subsequent Games.

“Usually when you get to taste that level of achievement on a global scale you want more, but I knew that it was time to give back now and help my teammate and younger generations taste it at an early age.”

That’s how I got involved in the athletics federation and the Sports Ministry afterwards.”

He said that it did not matter how someone was built, as long as they had the willpower to work on their body and skills in order to become the best they could be in the sport that they liked. He added that parents had greater awareness, as did athletes, and wished that more Saudis could do what he could not.

Although Souan retired as an athlete at the age of 34, after competing in the 2006 Asian Games in Qatar, he was and still is a role model who keeps giving back to his country. Because of his passion for sports he was a physical education teacher and then supervisor at the Ministry of Education. 

“I always felt responsible to keep my record clean because I’ve seen how parents and students used to look up to me so, as an Olympian, I wanted to give a good example.”

In addition to the Olympic silver medal he won, with an Asian record of 47.53 seconds, Souan counts the 2001 Goodwill Games hurdles silver from Brisbane as his most prized possession. 

All told Souan has won 40 gold medals including one from the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, South Korea.