Karim Benzema has been rewarded for his remarkable performances last season with Real Madrid
Paris (AFP) - For Karim Benzema, winning the most prestigious individual award in football is the ultimate recognition for his remarkable performances with Real Madrid last season and confirmation that he is a player and a man transformed since his years in exile from the French national team because of a sextape scandal.
Benzema, fresh from scoring for Real against Barcelona in Sunday’s Clasico, was the overwhelming favourite to win the Ballon d’Or in Monday’s ceremony in Paris.
He is the fifth Frenchman to claim the prize, the first since Zinedine Zidane in 1998.
His victory was seen as such a foregone conclusion in France that the front page headline of newspaper Le Parisien on Monday was dedicated to him. “The revenge of the unpopular one,” it said.
It is not long ago that Benzema, now 34, was a pariah, frozen out of the France team for five and a half years because of his involvement in a blackmail scandal over a sextape involving his former teammate Mathieu Valbuena.
The Lyon native went on trial late last year and was handed a one-year suspended prison sentence and a fine of 75,000 euros ($73,848).
In June he decided not to appeal his conviction, eager to turn the page and keep the focus on football.
By then he had completed a stunning season with his club, propelling Real to glory in the Champions League as well as the Spanish title.
- Astonishing season -
With the criteria for the prize having been changed to only take into account the last full season, rather than the calendar year, his performances meant there was little prospect of anyone else winning the Ballon d’Or.
The figures speak for themselves.
Benzema scored 44 goals in 46 games for Real last season, including 27 in La Liga as he ended the campaign as the top scorer in Spain’s top flight by a distance.
But his very best form came in the Champions League, in which he was also the leading marksman with 15 goals in 12 appearances.
Wearing the captain’s armband, Benzema scored five times in the group stage for Carlo Ancelotti’s side, but the best was to come in the knockout rounds.
He scored a stunning hat-trick in 17 second-half minutes in the spectacular last-16 comeback win over Paris Saint-Germain, and another away to Chelsea in the quarter-final first leg.
It was also his extra-time goal in the return leg of that tie that nipped a Chelsea comeback in the bud, and he scored three more over both legs of the semi-final against Manchester City, including an extra-time spot-kick in the return leg which secured Real’s spot in the final.
He was not the standout player in the final, with Vinicius Junior scoring the only goal of the game, but that victory over Liverpool in Paris would not have been possible without Benzema’s prior contribution.
The former Lyon striker has now won five Champions Leagues since moving to the Spanish capital aged 21 in 2009.
“What is most important to me is to win collective trophies. If you do things well on the field, individual awards will follow,” Benzema pointed out recently.
This award comes after he was named the UEFA player of last season at a ceremony in August, for he did not just enjoy success at club level.
Benzema also won his first international title with France in the Nations League, scoring in the final as Les Bleus beat Spain 2-1.
- Off-field affairs -
Absent from his country’s victorious 2018 World Cup campaign, he is now hoping to cap off an incredible year by helping France retain that title in Qatar -– his 35th birthday is the day after the December 18 final.
Benzema, whose grandfather emigrated to France from Algeria, was brought up in the Lyon suburb of Bron.
He quickly emerged as an exciting talent at Lyon, then France’s dominant club, before earning a move to Real where he spent years in the shadows of Cristiano Ronaldo and was frequently caught up in off-field affairs.
Before the sextape scandal, he and fellow French international star Franck Ribery were swept up in a tawdry tale with a prostitute named Zahia Dehar.
However, the case against them for allegedly having sex with her when she was underage – Benzema denied ever doing so – collapsed in 2014.
Yet in recent years a far more mature Benzema has let his football do the talking.
That is why, in 2020, Zidane was in no doubt when asked if he thought Benzema was his country’s greatest ever centre-forward.
“For me he is clearly the best, yes,” he said.