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In the end, Karim Benzema’s Real Madrid departure was as enigmatic as much of his 14-year career in the Spanish capital.

On Thursday afternoon, The Athletic reported that Benzema had decided to leave Madrid after receiving a lucrative offer from Saudi Arabia. Later that evening, the Frenchman conveyed a cryptic message at Spanish sports newspaper Marca’s ‘Leyenda’ awards ceremony: “It’s the internet talking and the internet is not reality.”

This led to Marca reporting that Benzema was going to stay after all. But on Sunday, Madrid finally announced he was going, adding he had “earned the right to decide his future”. He then bid farewell with a goal from the penalty spot in his side’s last La Liga game of the season against Athletic Bilbao.

Benzema’s exit will be keenly felt by Real fans. He is the club’s second top scorer of all-time with 354 goals in 648 games — behind only Cristiano Ronaldo. He has lifted a club-record 25 trophies since joining from Lyon in 2009 and his Ballon d’Or in 2022 was the culmination of years of excellence for the Spanish giants.

The numbers alone do not do justice to Benzema’s impact at Madrid. The 35-year-old striker is an artist who will be remembered as much for the goals he did not score as those he did. Two moments that stick in the mind are his majestic dribble past Atletico Madrid defenders to send Real through to the Champions League final in 2017 and his no-look, backheeled assist for Casemiro against Espanyol in 2020 — but there are plenty more you will not find in highlight reels.

When he did score, his goals were almost always crucial. Think of his hat-trick to turn the tide against Paris Saint-Germain or his Panenka penalty against Manchester City during last season’s remarkable Champions League run. Even as Benzema started to show his age this season, he scored a hat-trick at the Camp Nou and a brace at Anfield. During his time at Madrid, only Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski scored more than his 78 Champions League goals.

Benzema has not always had an easy relationship with Madridistas, but he has cast off the doubts that gathered around him when he first landed in Spain. The man who picked up his Ballon d’Or trophy last October was almost unrecognisable from the fresh-faced 21-year-old unveiled in 2009. Benzema has undergone a physical and mental transformation not many would have predicted following his early struggles.

How did he do it? These are the four stages of Benzema at Real, from being coveted by club president Florentino Perez to becoming an undisputed Madrid legend, via cat insults from Jose Mourinho and playing second fiddle to Ronaldo.

The young striker coveted by Perez

“I was with my friends and they told me: ‘You have to come, Florentino is here’. I greeted him, we spoke and he asked whether he had my word to sign him. I told him yes, of course.”

Benzema to Movistar’s Universo Valdano in October 2020.

The story of how Madrid signed Benzema has gone down in club folklore.

Perez was just about to begin his second spell as club president and Benzema was impressing as part of a dominant Lyon side who had won seven Ligue 1 titles in a row — with the young striker’s goals helping them to four of those.

Benzema’s performances led to rival interest from Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, among other European giants, but his mind was made up when Perez appeared at his house in Bron, a suburb on the outskirts of Lyon. The 21-year-old was left stunned when he was told to come home and found the man behind Madrid’s Galacticos project waiting for him.

“When you’re excited about someone like a girlfriend, you go to find her, and that’s what happened with me and Karim,” Perez told RMC Sport in 2019.

It was a moment Benzema recalled himself on Thursday night when he received his ‘Leyenda’ award from Marca.

“I think the day Florentino came to my house is one of the happiest days of my life,” he said. “We all know who he is. I asked him if he was the one who had brought (Zinedine) Zidane or Ronaldo, my idols, to Real Madrid.”

Madrid signed Benzema for an initial £30million ($37.1m) and he was presented in front of the Bernabeu crowd in July 2009. It was a busy summer — Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Raul Albiol had already joined and Xabi Alonso, Alvaro Arbeloa, Esteban Granero and Alvaro Negredo were still to come for a combined outlay of more than €250m.

Benzema’s presentation attracted fewer fans than those of Ballon d’Or winners Ronaldo and Kaka, which gave some idea of the difficulties he would face in establishing himself, but the Frenchman seemed up for the challenge as he addressed the press after his unveiling.

“I’m aware there is great competition and I understand that maybe I won’t always be able to play,” he said. “But I’ve come here to fight, so it’s not going to be a problem.”

That fight would soon be tested by the arrival of a certain Portuguese manager.

The ‘cat’ criticised by Mourinho

“If you don’t have a dog to go hunting with but you have a cat, you go with the cat, because you can’t go alone.”

Jose Mourinho, former Real Madrid manager, December 2010.

Benzema started just 18 games and scored nine goals in his first season at Madrid. The Argentina striker Gonzalo Higuain was preferred to him and Real’s new Galacticos failed to impress as they finished second to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in La Liga and were knocked out of the Champions League and the Copa del Rey in the early rounds.

Manuel Pellegrini was promptly sacked and replaced by Mourinho, who had just led Inter Milan to a historic treble. There were early signs his relationship with Benzema would not be easy when he criticised the Frenchman’s attitude during their pre-season tour of the United States in the summer of 2010, but things came to a head in one press conference in December of that year.

Mourinho had alternated between Higuain and Benzema up front, but an injury to the Argentinian left him with no choice but to play the former Lyon forward. The now-infamous quote above followed as Mourinho compared Benzema to a cat, reminding journalists he had said the season would be difficult with just those two strikers at his disposal.

Benzema understandably took offence, later revealing he spoke to Mourinho and told him to “respect me as a player”.

“From then on, there were no cats, dogs or whatever,” he said in the Canal+ documentary LeKBenzema in 2017. “I’m shy but if you mock me, I’ll go directly to you.”

Mourinho’s words appeared to spark a reaction from the striker. Benzema finished with 26 goals in 34 games in his first season under the Portuguese manager and he then scored 32 goals in 46 games in the 2011-12 season as he and Higuain helped Madrid to ‘La Liga de los records’ — winning the league ahead of Barca with 100 points and 121 goals, both record totals.

Even so, doubts remained over Benzema’s work ethic and attitude. There was off-pitch controversy, too, as he and fellow France team-mate Franck Ribery were accused of having sex with an underage prostitute, charges which both men denied and which were dropped by a French court in 2014.

Benzema and Higuain continued to compete for the main striker’s role until Mourinho’s Madrid exit in 2013. Frustrated at having to share the limelight with Benzema, Higuain left for Napoli that summer. For the Frenchman, it was one less obstacle in his quest to be Real’s main man in attack.

Playing second fiddle to Ronaldo in the ‘BBC’

“Before, I played according to Cristiano. I found him endlessly with the objective of helping him score even more goals. I was in a secondary role.”

Benzema to France Football in February 2019.

Benzema would still have to wait for his starring role at Madrid. Gareth Bale arrived from Tottenham Hotspur for a world-record £85.3million fee in September 2013 and the ‘BBC’ trio with Benzema and Ronaldo was born.

That front three helped Madrid end the search for La Decima — a previously elusive 10th European Cup — under Carlo Ancelotti in 2014, but it was clear which was the leading light. Ronaldo scored 51 goals that season in all competitions, more than Benzema (24) and Bale (22) combined.

Benzema seemed happy enough to facilitate Ronaldo’s goalscoring. He provided 41 assists for his attacking partner in the 355 games they played together for Madrid, with Ronaldo returning the favour 27 times. Madridistas also began to appreciate the aspects of Benzema’s game they had not previously acknowledged: his off-the-ball runs, intelligent movement and ability to create space for others.

Benzema was suspended from the French national team in 2015 for his role in a blackmail case against team-mate Mathieu Valbuena in which he was later found guilty (he did not return until 2021 and appeared to announce his international retirement after last year’s World Cup). But things were going well for him at club level — helped by the appointment of his childhood hero Zidane as coach in 2016.

Both Zidane and Benzema were Frenchmen with Algerian roots who shared a similar view of the game — Benzema was even nicknamed “Petit Zizou” by some former team-mates in Lyon’s academy. The striker played a key role as Real won the Champions League three times in a row under the legendary midfielder from 2016-2018, but his goalscoring dropped in each of those seasons — from 28 goals in the 2015-16 season to 19 in 2016-17 and just 12 in 2017-18, the lowest since his debut campaign with the club.

That changed with Ronaldo’s departure in 2018…

An undisputed legend

“Each day he gets better, like wine. Each day he shows more leadership, he feels more important in this team and that’s what makes the difference.”

Carlo Ancelotti, Real Madrid head coach, April 2022

Ronaldo leaving for Juventus allowed Benzema to take centre stage for the first time in his Madrid career. It also meant the Frenchman had to take up the goalscoring burden left behind by the Portuguese star.

As the below graphic shows, his goals per game and expected goals (xG) rose after Ronaldo left. In La Liga, during Ronaldo’s final season Benzema scored 0.21 goals per game — that figure has dramatically risen with Madrid’s all-time top scorer out of the picture. It has won over some of the more sceptical fans who were previously unimpressed by Benzema’s scoring record.

When Ancelotti returned for his second spell in charge in 2021, he found a striker who was leaner, fitter and more focused. Benzema appeared to have learned from Ronaldo’s dedication, although his personal trainer, Javier Atalaya — who also worked with Ronaldo — has claimed that “not even Cristiano could stand the training Benzema does”.

The transition to becoming Real’s leader, a role that has not always come naturally to Benzema, was more difficult. In October 2020, he was caught on camera urging left-back Ferland Mendy not to pass to Vinicius Junior and saying “he is playing against us” during a Champions League game against Borussia Monchengladbach.

There were no such doubts last season. Benzema led by example with a career-best 44 goals in 46 appearances to help Real to a La Liga-Champions League double, forming a lethal partnership with Vinicius Jr. He could finally claim that European Cup as his own after years in Ronaldo’s shadow and took over the captain’s armband at the start of this season after Marcelo left the club.

“Karim is a leader who doesn’t talk a lot… but he always says the right words,” Zidane told L’Equipe after Benzema’s Ballon d’Or win. “We have the same conception of football. For us, it’s the game, the ball, the leather needs to express itself.”

Benzema has not always had the right words this campaign. He scored 31 goals in 43 games but struggled with muscular injuries and looked far from his best. He has rarely spoken in public in the second half of the season — something pundits have claimed is unbefitting of a Madrid captain. There will be no questions from external media at the club’s farewell event for him on Tuesday.

Most Madrid supporters would prefer to focus on his Ballon d’Or winning season, which was just reward for his 2021-22 campaign but also for the battle to fully establish himself in Spain.

He summed up his style of play — and what Real will miss about him — better than most in an interview with the club’s official TV channel following that award.

“When I was younger, I played with older people and my head had to be quicker,” he said. “I had to move quickly, shoot more quickly… that helps me now. My game now is one-touch. I know what I’m going to do when the ball reaches me.”

(Top photo: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/Denis Doyle/Lluis Gene/Florencia Tan Jun/AFP/Getty Images. Visual design by Samuel Richardson)



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