Amidst the drizzling rain in the Spanish capital stood a man at the peak of his powers. A modern gladiator, famed for his bandaged right hand concealing a fractured finger, entering his coliseum. A treasure of the game now finally glittering in gold. As he crossed the touchline, a thunderous roar erupted from the stands as his teammates applauded with pride. Waiting for him with the iconic trophy were two legends in their own right: Luka Modric, Madrid’s captain and midfield king, and Zinedine Zidane, former coach, World Cup winner and the last Frenchman to win the award until, well, now.
For more than a decade, the footballing world has seen the Ballon d’Or in the hands of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. With the exception of Modric in 2018, the pair has received every edition of the award since 2008. Last week, however, a new king was crowned.
Long in the shadow of Portuguese icon Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid, Karim Benzema spent much of his career playing second fiddle to Madrid’s attacking stars. Creating space for Gareth Bale or dropping deep to supply Ronaldo as he occupied his usual running lanes became his primary role. Having arrived in the summer of 2009, alongside Ronaldo and Kaká, both former Ballon d’Or winners, Benzema was never considered Madrid’s talisman. He was an exciting addition to a rebuilding squad but was viewed as more of a reliable reinforcement than a leading superstar.
A bench player behind Argentinian forward Gonzalo Higuain in his early days at the club, the Frenchman struggled making his name as a 22-year-old in Madrid’s famous white shirt. Criticism was regular, straight from teammates, media and coaches, citing his lazy training and lackluster contributions, all of which motivated young Benzema. In his first season in Madrid, Benzema only managed eight goals in La Liga. The next season, under the brutally honest and tactical genius of Jose Mourinho, Benzema increased his tally to 15 and eventually 21 in the following two seasons. His work ethic would keep him a part of the club’s most successful era as Los Blancos went on to dominate in Europe.
Despite winning five Champions Leagues and domestic titles in Spain, Benzema never drew the spotlight that some of his teammates did. This led many to believe that once Ronaldo, Madrid’s seemingly irreplaceable core, left in 2018, the Spanish giants would look for a replacement for Benzema. Everything was going to plan as Madrid channeled the funds from Ronaldo’s transfer to Juventus into bringing Chelsea’s explosive Eden Hazard to the Bernabeu. But playing for Real Madrid has its caveats. The Belgian winger never lived up to expectations due to poor fitness, injuries and plain bad luck. The club turned to younger talents like the Brazilian duo of Vinícius Jr. and Rodrgyo as they looked to fill Ronaldo’s goal-scoring void. And it was filled, not by the young energetic wingers from South America but from a veteran who had been waiting for years to step into the spotlight.
Last season, Benzema scored an incredible 27 goals in La Liga as Real Madrid was crowned the Spanish champion ahead of arch-rival Barcelona. In the Champions League, the French striker bagged 15 goals as the competition’s leading scorer ahead of then Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski. Great strikers have put up similar numbers in the past but the occasion of Benzema’s goals ink him into the history books. Performing a breathtaking hat trick against PSG in the round of 16 followed by goals in both legs of Madrid’s quarter and semifinals against Chelsea and Manchester City, Benzema took Real Madrid on one of the greatest runs the sport has ever seen.
Benzema has shown signs of greatness since his youth at Olympique Lyonnais — even attracting the attention of Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson. Composure in front of goal and a natural sense of positioning have given him the edge throughout his decorated career. Despite not being the fastest or most flair-heavy dribbler, Karim is a defender’s nightmare. With him on the field, much like Messi and Ronaldo, a goal can come out of nothing. With 329 goals for Madrid — second only to Ronaldo — and as the club’s all-time leading assist provider (159), Benzema is already an icon. Beyond goals and assists, his leadership in this young, extremely talented and hungry squad has molded Madrid into a growing dynasty despite the departures of legends like Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane and most recently Casemiro.
As New York Times soccer correspondent Rory Smith beautifully put it, “Benzema did not win the Ballon d’Or because Messi and Ronaldo fell to earth,” but rather because he has finally reached “their celestial level.”
With a World Cup on the horizon, this 34-year-old bandaged warrior will look to secure France’s second-straight title while also leading Real Madrid through yet another challenging season. He is celestial. He is the 2022 Ballon d’Or winner: Karim Benzema.