Fourteen years have passed since a car pulled up on Rue Youri Gagarine, Lyon, and the president of Real Madrid got out, but Karim Benzema can still picture it clearly. “You came to my home,” the Frenchman said on Tuesday morning as he said goodbye again, “and when I saw you, I thought: ‘This is the man that brought Zizou [Zinedine Zidane] and Ronaldo [Nazário] and he wants me in his team.’” It was 2009, Benzema was 21 and shy. He didn’t offer his visitor a drink, barely said a word and didn’t need much convincing to go but Florentino Pérez told him that he would become the best in the world and that Madrid was the place to do it.
Eventually, he got there. And now he has gone. It is only a few days since Benzema responded to reports of a departure by saying the internet isn’t always right and a couple since Carlo Ancelotti reminded everyone that his striker still had a contract at the Santiago Bernabéu, but there he was standing in the sports hall at the training ground and bidding farewell from a makeshift stage. He left Lyon; half a lifetime later, he departs the place that became home for longer than he could really have imagined but shorter than he had come to hope. “It’s a bit of a sad day,” he said. “I always said wanted to finish my career at Real Madrid but in life there are other opportunities.”
He leaves for Al Ittihad in Saudi Arabia as the holder of the Ballon d’Or, voted the best player on the planet less than nine months ago. He was 34 then, 35 now. Recognition seemed to take a long time and almost as soon as he had it he has gone. Almost as if that was all that was left for him, a man who once said he plays “for those who understand football”, who occasionally seemed almost engaged in a mission to educate. He seemed to get there quietly, almost unnoticed, never hammering home the point, just getting on with being the best.
If he was shy in 2009, it’s not like there has been lots of noise since. Not here, at least: that quiet contrasts dramatically, uncomfortably, with the dark off-field story that pursued in him in France, affecting his national career which in turn may have affected his international status. “It’s hard to speak with many emotions,” he said on Tuesday, but he didn’t speak much anyway and he wasn’t obviously emotional. His speech was short and came without tears.
“Thanks, honestly,” he said at the end, offering a quick thumbs up. As well as that day at the home of his parents, Hafid and Wahid, in the Terraillon neighbourhood in 2009 – and you can insert your own shooting for the stars line here – he also recalled what he had said at his presentation a few weeks later. One, two, three, Hala Madrid. He had been Pérez’s personal mission, but he was not the only signing that summer and certainly not the biggest. At €35m, he was not cheap, but three others cost more and he is not among the 10 most expensive players in the club’s history.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká also came that summer, as well as Xabi Alonso, as Madrid sought to compete with that Barcelona team. Benzema outlasted them, and all the other galácticos. Gonzalo Higuaín had arrived 18 months earlier. Others arrived later, something seemingly significant in that. As if there was a search for excitement, men who could take centre stage. There was Gareth Bale and James Rodríguez. Sunday was Eden Hazard’s last game too. Perhaps the worst signing in Madrid’s history, Hazard did not get on the pitch; perhaps even the best, Benzema went off in the 70th minute to a standing ovation.
His last touch was a goal, scored against Athletic Club, whose coach Ernesto Valverde described him as “one of those who are above earthly players”. It was No 353. Only Cristiano Ronaldo, the man he provided for over so many years, scored more for the club. This was his 647th game. Only four players have made more appearances.
It didn’t always seemas if he would last so long or be appreciated so much; that he was genuinely this good. In Madrid’s history, only one man scored more but Benzema didn’t always seem to score enough. In his first six seasons, he only got 20 league goals once. For a while, other strikers were mentioned, potential signings to go with the actual signings: Radamel Falcao, Robert Lewandowski and the rest. Some were real, some less so. Benzema had presidential support and protection – Pérez looked genuinely sad on Tuesday – and no one came who could or would compete with him, but there was something more basic: ultimately, no one could hold a candle to him.
He didn’t score so many goals back then but he had better things to do. It has become a little facile to say, sure, but he was busy playing football. Because it is the obvious narrative does not make it less true. If he didn’t score more goals perhaps it was because he was helping others do so. The one man ahead of him got there with him. His dad complained that he was not more selfish at times and yet it was better this way. “I changed the way I played with [Ronaldo],” he said. “He was scoring 50, 60 goals a year so you adapt to his style. I was happy at his side.”
Successful too, even if it meant attention did not always fall on him. In Ronaldo’s last season, Benzema scored just five in the league, but they ended as European champions again.
After Ronaldo’s departure there was a shift, even if took a while to become evident and much as Benzema still recoils a little at the suggestion. There were different spaces to occupy and responsibilities to take on. And there was recognition too. Across the next five seasons Benzema scored 30, 27, 30, 44, and 31 goals in all competitions. Four of the five seasons in which he got more than 30 came after his 30th birthday. Madrid’s last Champions League was his fifth; above all, it was his. In his 13th year at Madrid, he had led them. He did what he does, quietly perhaps but to a conclusion that was irrefutable: he was the best, the Ballon d’Or following. He had wanted it, badly.
Top scorer in Spain, top scorer in the Champions League, fractionally short of a goal a game in the 2021-22 season, he had 15 assists too. This season has not been the same. The return to the national team, a World Cup where it would all fall into place, was frustrated by injury and a lingering sense that something was wrong. It never quite felt right with Didier Deschamps. There has been fatigue, physical problems recurring. He has scored 31 goals for Madrid but it has not felt the same. He has not played so few league games since arriving. He has always understood the game. At 35, the Ballon d’Or holder understood it was time to go.
He does so with 25 winners’ medals. There was a moment on Tuesday when Pérez mentioned that achievement and went through his numbers. They are extraordinary but while they made his case watertight in the end while they go in the books, the real stories will be written on different pages. It was not really about the numbers, including the one on his back. He had the stats now too, soon overtaking Hugo Sánchez and Raúl and Alfredo Di Stefano but he hadn’t stopped doing the other things. And it will be something less tangible that is taken away.
If you had to choose one memorable moment from Benzema’s career, it might be that piece of skill in the storm at the Calderón, somehow escaping the entire Atlético Madrid defence. That was not his goal, nor even his assist; unmeasurable and unmeasured, it does not exist anywhere as a number but a piece of art. He was a No 9 that Zidane called a 9 and a half, “a total footballer”. He had touches of Zidane – and touch is the word – and of Brazilian Ronaldo too, his idols.
There is something undemonstrative about Benzema: he never seemed to be running, there was no fighting, no shouting, no grand gestures, he never even seemed to really kick a ball, still less whack it: instead it was guided, helped gently on its way. Control complete, “hands for feet” in Santi Solari’s words, there was a smoothness, a stillness, almost a silence, speed a thing of the mind. He knew. Eventually everyone else did too. “When he told me he was going, I said: ‘Thanks for all you have done,’” Carlo Ancelotti said. “I have coached one of the best players in the world. Not as a forward, but a footballer.”