Benzema: From Belarus to Brazil
Belarus and Brazil have little in common, apart from the first letter of their names. However, Karim Benzema's season is probably perfectly summed up by his journey from Belarus to Brazil. From Gomel, where Didier Deschamps dropped him from the starting XI in September 2013 for a qualifier against the former eastern bloc country, to Porto Alegre, where he netted two goals on Sunday against Honduras in his first ever World Cup game.
The Real Madrid striker, who has had his share of criticism, burst onto the grandest stage of all with a brace: first a well-taken penalty just before halftime, and then a superb finish under the bar from a tight angle to make it 3-0. In between, FIFA should probably give him half of the own goal scored by Honduran goalkeeper Noel Valladares, considering his sumptuous half volley (after a lovely pass from Yohan Cabaye) hit the post before bouncing back off the unlucky stopper and over the line.
But 10 months ago, it didn't look possible that he would be here. Belarus was, quite simply, the lowest moment in Benzema's career. He was left out by Deschamps because he was going through the biggest drought of his international career: 1,117 minutes without a goal. The French manager favoured Arsenal's Olivier Giroud up front, and for four games, the Real Madrid striker sat on the subs' bench.
"The doubt started to set in," he said in a May interview with L'Equipe Magazine. "I was in a hole, and some tried to lock me in it -- with a padlock."
Benzema never gave up, though. When he finally scored again, after 1,222 long and painful minutes, in a friendly against Australia in October 2013, the Parc des Princes started singing, "He has scored, he has scored, he has scored." Benzema took the joke well and responded with a thumbs up to the fans. More importantly, he responded through the remaining seven months of the season, with 24 goals in 52 matches with Real Madrid and eight in his past seven with France.
Since his low, he has come back to have arguably the best season of his career, but despite the Champions League win, despite the Copa del Rey win, despite the love and appreciation of Real Madrid fans, the pressure is huge for him to deliver for his country at the World Cup.
Indeed, it is hard to believe that a player of Benzema's class is playing in his first World Cup. He will be 27 in December, but he had always been denied before -- too young in 2006 (he made his debut for Les Bleus in March 2007) and dropped by Raymond Domenech for the 2010 edition. The then-coach had apparently been disappointed by Benzema's attitude during Euro 2008, in which he had a few arguments with older players, but it was a strange decision.
The former Lyon prodigy didn't miss much, to be fair, and perhaps breathed a sigh of relief when he watched the unpleasant drama unfold in the French camp. But all the same, his absence has made the pressure ever heavier on his shoulders in the 2014 edition. This time, with Franck Ribery out and Samir Nasri left at home, the whole of France are looking to Benzema. Against Honduras, he delivered. It took him a bit of time to get into the game, but the penalty earned by Paul Pogba settled his nerves, and two wonderful strikes [one embarrassing Valladares] sealed a 3-0 win for France on the night.
The expectations were high, but Benzema met them. Two years ago, at Euro 2012, a similar pressure was on him before the start of the tournament, and he bottled it; he didn't score and didn't have much of an impact. Now, his World Cup brace has seen him net 23 times in 67 caps, which makes him the ninth highest scorer in French football history.
Sunday evening belonged to Benzema, and it is ironic that one of his finest moments came on Father's Day. His daughter, Melia, was born in February and has changed his life for the better; certainly, she can claim to be partly responsible for his fine season. The Benzema of Gomel, who sat on the bench in sadness eight months ago, is now gone. The one of Porto Alegre -- euphoric and jubilant -- has replaced him.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.