Karim Benzema has netted two hat-tricks in the Champions League this season – and needs another to break Cristiano Ronaldo’s single-season goal-scoring record in the competition.
But Saturday night at the Stade de France is just the first of three big dates for the Real Madrid star in the French capital this year. Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane will have to produce some stunning performances to prevent the striker, 34, claiming the Ballon d’Or, which will be presented in Paris on October 17.
Before that, he will face a court case on June 30 to appeal against a one-year suspended sentence and €75,000 fine imposed in November for his “complicity” in the attempted blackmail of former France team-mate Mathieu Valbuena.
It would be another remarkable hat-trick to win all three. But then it has been an incredible year for the former enfant terrible of French football, who only returned to the France squad in May last year after a five-year suspension over the Valbuena sex-tape scandal.
With 44 goals in 44 games this season, including 15 in the Champions League, he strikes more often than a French lorry driver. And his Panenka penalty against Manchester City in the semi-final demonstrated the deadly combination of nerve and technique which has seen this enigmatic outsider take centre stage in European football.
Yet KB9, who has come out of the shadow of CR7 to become a talismanic team leader at Real Madrid, has never been far from the spotlight for his life off the pitch. Back in 2006, after his first call-up to the France squad, the proud son of Algerian parents admitted he had chosen to represent the land of his birth for the “sporting” reasons.
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And he added: “I play for France, but I don’t sing La Marseillaise. I am Algerian.” Cases against Benzema and Franck Ribery over the Zahia Affair – allegations that players had sex with a 16-year-old prostitute – were finally dropped in 2014 after a four-year investigation.
The next year, he was arrested by French police for his involvement in the Valbuena case. Benzema, who denied all charges, was found guilty of encouraging Valbuena to pay four men – one a “childhood friend” – to keep the sex tape out of the public eye. Benzema has always found it easier to get away from defenders than some of his old mates.
His conduct was condemned by the then-French president and prime minister and Benzema claimed Didier Deschamps “bowed to the pressure of a racist part of France” when he was excluded from the Euro 2016 squad. The France coach’s home was then vandalised with graffiti branding him a racist.
In March 2020, during an Instagram Live chat at the start of lockdown, Benzema spoke about his replacement in the France team, Olivier Giroud. He said: “Comparing him with me is like comparing a go-kart with a Ferrari.” But his superb form at Real Madrid – and peace talks with Deschamps – led to his surprise recall for the Euros.
It was followed by his best-ever season as he won the Pichichi Trophy – for being La Liga’s top scorer – for the first time. The league title was his 21st piece of silverware with Real Madrid, while he drew level with Raul in second place with 323 goals on the all-time club scorers. Ronaldo netted 450.
Sir Alex Ferguson tried to sign Benzema as a replacement for CR7 in 2009. Four Champions League titles later, his popularity has risen as Gareth Bale’s has declined. In a recent interview with Esquire Middle East, the Frenchman said: “I am grateful to life for all that has happened to me and I look to live to it to the maximum.
“The pressure that comes from being one of the leaders of the team exists because you don’t want to disappoint those expecting you to make a difference, but it pushes me to give the best version of myself. It motivates me a lot.”
A winter World Cup has led to the Ballon d’Or being decided over a season – instead of the calendar year - with nominations announced on August 12. “I think about the Ballon d’Or,” admitted Benzema.
“These are important things for players. But I can say that I have become the striker that I dreamed of being. I have become who I wanted to be since I was a boy. And if it all finished tomorrow, I have achieved more than I ever dreamed of.”