Watching France’s opening World Cup clash against Australia on Saturday must have been a frustrating experience for those unlucky enough to be left at home.
Head coach Didier Deschamps had both the luxury and the curse of having to leave out a group of players who would likely have strolled into any other squad at the tournament.
Arsenal’s Alexandre Lacazette? Not consistent enough. Manchester United’s Anthony Martial? Not good enough. Kingsley Coman? Not fit enough.
Amid all the absentees, though, it was the omission of Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema that caused the greatest stir.
Nine days after Deschamps had named his preliminary panel, without the 30-year-old in it, the Lyon-born forward offered a response by scoring in the Champions League final to lead Zinedine Zidane’s men to a third successive title.
The forward stood accused of taking part in a blackmailing plot against the ex-Marseille man earlier that year, and while he was finally cleared of wrongdoing in the case in July 2017, he was never recalled to the national team, despite a suspension imposed by the French FA (FFF) being lifted.
For Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the legendary Swedish striker who spent four years in France playing with Paris Saint-Germain, this continued absence is inexcusable, particularly having watched Les Bleus toil to a 2-1 win in their opening game.
“If the coach says he's not good enough for this team then the coach should not be there, but Benzema should. It's very easy,” he told beIN Sports.
“I find it very ridiculous that he's not there because if you want to win, you get winners, and Benzema is a winner.”
Building a World Cup-winning side, though, is not necessarily simply about picking the best players. Just as vital is constructing a team with spirit.
France, perhaps more than any country, know that only too well, having seen campaigns in 2010 and then at Euro 2012 disintegrate amidst a lack of harmony among the group.
Benzema is a player who simply does not fit into the framework in this regard.
Suggestions that his absence is a manifestation of Deschamps’ dislike for him are simply not the case. If that were true, would Benzema have played 10 successive internationals during and after World Cup 2014, scoring just one goal in the process? It does not appear credible.
So, the question must then be raised: is his talent sufficiently above that of players such as Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele to risk sacrificing the harmony in the group?
Deschamps does not believe so and the evidence backs up the France boss.
Amidst Benzema’s barren run, he was expected to be a key figure in the Brazil 2014 quarter-final against Germany. He failed to make an impact in that game as his side suffered a 1-0 defeat.
Fast forward two years and France again found themselves up against Germany. This time they had no Benzema, but they did have an improving Griezmann, who converted both goals as Les Bleus eliminated the world champions from Euro 2016 and thereby moved into the final.
In the meantime, there had been opportunities for Benzema to work his way back into the squad. Instead of embracing these, he served only to complicate his life, notably accusing Deschamps of racism.
“He has bowed to the pressure of a racist part of France,” the attacker, who is of Algerian origin, told Marca.
Between those comments and the rise of a fresh generation of attacking talent, the basis of which now forms the forefront of Deschamps’ attack, his fate was sealed.
These comments served only to isolate the forward from the coach and the team as a whole.
FFF president Noel Le Graet said before the World Cup: “The France team is over for Benzema.”
That may not prove to be the case – if Zinedine Zidane was to take the reins of the national side the situation could transform rapidly – but under Deschamps there is no prospect for a recall.
It’s all very well for Ibrahimovic to steam into the debate with a simplistic argument, but the fact is that the situation is far more nuanced than he appears to be aware. The baggage the striker brings outweighs the contribution he is likely to make.
Lacazette, Martial, and Coman have every right to be frustrated; Benzema should only be regretful.
By Robin Bairner
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