Benzema: I'm privileged to be at Real Madrid
After a summer of record breaking and extravagant spending by Real Madrid, €41m French striker Karim Benzema is hoping to prove he can be the jewel in the crown of the new Galacticos era at the Bernabeu.
All eyes will be on the Spanish capital as Real Madrid's expensively assembled, new look side begin their La Liga campaign against Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday evening and, as Benzema tells ESPN's Nick Bidwell, his heart rate is increasing daily ahead of the big kick-off.
Nick Bidwell: For most of last season, you said you were happy at Lyon and would not be quitting France this summer. What changed?
Karim Benzema: A concrete offer from Real Madrid. When a club of their dimension shows an interest, players do not tend to turn them down. They rushed to complete the deal and I was no different as this opportunity was too good to miss. Who wouldn't be attracted by a move to Real this summer? They have signed players from the stratosphere like Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka. The club are moving heaven and earth to return to their position as the world's number one. To be part of all this, to have the chance line up alongside some of the best players on the planet, is just fantastic. I'm like a kid on Christmas Eve.
NB: Which other clubs might you have joined this summer?
KB: Real was always my priority, but there was also serious interest from Manchester United, Inter Milan and Barcelona. Naturally, it's hugely flattering to be wanted by such huge clubs and each has a lot of appeal. I know Sir Alex Ferguson has absolute faith in youngsters and likes to give them every chance to succeed, so he would have been good for me if I chose United. Barcelona are European champions and play brilliant football and Inter are easily the best side in Italy. But I repeat, when it came down to thinking about leaving Lyon, Real was the only destination I had in mind.
NB: Did financial considerations come into the equation?
KB: I will be well rewarded at Real as I've been given a six-year contract, but I can honestly say money was the last thing I was thinking of when Real came in for me. I was focusing on wearing that famous white shirt and imagining myself on the pitch at the Bernabeu. My attitude is that the football has to come first and that my career has to be going in the right direction. Only then will the money follow. I think I've got my priorities in order.
NB: Is it true that you supported Real Madrid as a teenager?
KB: From the age of about 14, I was fascinated by the aura of Real Madrid and its stars, players who seemed to me to combine grace, elegance and power. Ronaldo was my favourite player at the time and I couldn't watch him in action enough. I still study him on DVD today. He was a role model for me and I would try to copy his tricks and general style of play. When people say that I remind them a little of the great man, it's the biggest compliment they can pay me. I also loved Zinedine Zidane as he had extraordinary skills. Zizou has been very good to me in my career so far. It's no secret that he lobbied Real president Florentino Perez to take me on.
NB: What do you think motivated Real to pay so much money for you?
KB: You should ask Mr Perez. I'd like to think that they appreciated the profile of player who'd scored lots of goals for Lyon in Ligue 1 and the Champions League and who has a good future in the game. I can only get better.
NB: What are the risks involved in your transfer to Real?
KB: I guess the main one is that I've moved at the start of a World Cup year. Some in the game would say that a player needs stability at club level to best prepare for a big tournament. For me, I'm certain Real Madrid will be the perfect place for me this season. I fully expect to take my game to a higher level in Spain. I'm not so naive to believe that a starting spot belongs to me at Real. I will have to earn it. As at all top clubs, the competition for places will be intense and this fact will force me to improve, to work constantly on my game.
NB: Real's attacking players include Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Ruud Van Nistelerooy, Gonzalo Higuain and Raul as well as yourself. Don't you fear spending some time on the bench?
KB: Not at all. I've often heard the argument that youngsters shouldn't move abroad too early because they run the risk of spending too much time as a substitute. I prefer to look at the example of Nicolas Anelka, who left France at a very early age for Arsenal and straight away played and won trophies. At Lyon I was sure to play, but now I must fight to impose myself.
NB: So you don't fear it is too early to emigrate at the age of only 21?
KB: I'm young and only have two full years behind me in the Lyon side, but I am mature as well. If I was not completely certain that I was ready to make the jump, I wouldn't have gone for it. I'm mature for my age and take things in my stride. Although Real is another world compared to Lyon, I won't be overawed.
NB: Do you see your move to Real as the springboard for a starring role at the 2010 World Cup?
KB: It's true that at the moment I'm not a definite starter for France. Euro 2008 did not go well for me or the team as a whole. It certainly will not do my claims any harm if all goes according to plan at Real. What I need is a run of games for the national team as that will put me in a better position to show the coach, Raymond Domenech, what I can really do.
NB: Every time Real play this season, the opposition will look to knock you down. Is this pressure something you and the team can deal with?
KB: Real's project has created massive amounts of hope and expectation. We cannot disappoint the president, the coach or the fans. We're there to be shot at, but we are ready for the challenge. It concentrates the mind.
NB: Do you feel like a Galactico yet?
KB: I feel I'm acknowledged as a good player, one who can mix with the best. Above all, I tell myself I'm privileged to be at Real Madrid.