Karim Benzema seems to be the overwhelming favorite to win the Ballon d’Or after Real Madrid’s Champions League victory – so is this the French veteran’s finest hour?
The 34-year-old, who scored 44 goals in 46 games this season, would become the second-oldest player to win it after Blackpool’s Stanley Matthews, who was 41 when he won the first ever award in 1956.
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was man of the match in Paris and Vinicius Jr scored the only goal in the 1-0 win over Liverpool. It was a rare quiet night for Benzema – who had a goal disallowed for offside – in a brilliant season.
“Of course,” Benzema told Canal Plus if he was thinking about the Ballon d’Or – the prize organized by France Football which is awarded annually to the world’s best footballer.
“Now I will join up with the national team but I don’t think I can do much more with my club. We will see what happens, but in any case I am proud of what I have done.”
He added: “Let’s see what happens. I have trophies and I have nothing else [to prove] on the pitch. The important thing is to enjoy it.”
France legend Thierry Henry, speaking on American television, said: “I just want to say something to France Football or whoever is watching – close the votes. Benzema won it. Bye.”
So how good has Benzema been, who usually wins the Ballon d’Or and what would this mean?
The case for Benzema
There is one quite simple argument for Benzema to win the 2022 Ballon d’Or on 17 October – he has been the star player for the best team in Europe.
Real Madrid won La Liga and the Champions League – and Benzema won the Golden Boot in both.
He scored 27 league goals, nine clear of anyone else, and 15 Champions League goals – one every 74 minutes.
Benzema was a clutch player too, with 10 of those 15 goals coming in the knockout stages alone – a joint record in a season.
He netted a hat-trick at home against Paris St-Germain and another at Chelsea in the next round – plus the winner against Manchester City in the semis.
“The argument is over for the Ballon d’Or,” said former Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand on BT Sport. “If Benzema doesn’t get it, that will be a travesty.”
Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti said: “We are dependent on Benzema. Karim is a modern forward and [does] what is required of strikers – everything, including defensive work.
“He is the perfect representation of what a centre-forward should be in today’s football.”
Benzema’s career renaissance
Benzema’s two top-scorer trophies this season were his first since the 2007-08 Ligue 1 Golden Boot, when he scored 20 goals for champions Lyon as a 20-year-old.
He has experienced a huge career revival since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure from Real in 2018. Benzema’s role in that team was largely to help Ronaldo score, but he has come into his own since Ronaldo left for Juventus, becoming the star forward himself.
In Ronaldo’s final two seasons at Real, Benzema scored 11 and five La Liga goals respectively. In the following four years he has averaged 23 league goals a season, on Saturday won his fifth Champions League, and after a six-year exile from the France team he returned last year to score nine goals in 13 games for Les Bleus.
However, it has all come amid the backdrop of a scandal which stunned the football community in France.
In November 2021, Benzema was found guilty of conspiring to blackmail former France team-mate Mathieu Valbuena with a sex tape.
A judge gave Benzema a one-year suspended jail term and ordered him to pay a fine of 75,000 euros (£63,000).
Who usually wins the Ballon d’Or?
Before Saturday’s game people speculated the winner of the Champions League final could decide the winner of the Ballon d’Or.
Liverpool’s Sadio Mane won the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal – and Mohamed Salah won a third Premier League Golden Boot.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was asked before the match if the winner of the final could scoop the individual trophy.
“When you think about how these type of competitions are decided the answer is probably yes,” he said.
“You are either Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or you won the Champions League final. That is the way it goes. That’s how it was in the last few years. It will definitely increase the chances.”
Klopp is not wrong. You have to go back to 2006 and World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro for the last time the Ballon d’Or was awarded to someone other than Messi, Ronaldo or a Champions League winner.
Admittedly Kaka in 2007, and Luka Modric in 2018, were the only players apart from the big two to win in that time.
It was widely believed by Robert Lewandowski, who won the 2019-20 treble with Bayern Munich, would have won in 2020 but the award was canceled because of Covid.
What would this mean?
Benzema has been nominated several times – and will certainly be on the shortlist announced on 12 August – but he has never finished in the top three.
He would become the first Frenchman since Zinedine Zidane – Benzema’s former manager at Real Madrid – in 1998 to win.
BBC Sport went to Benzema’s hometown of Bron in Lyon before the game to talk to some of his childhood friends.
Farouk said Benzema, whose parents are both Algerian, gives “hope for the youth” for people who share his background.
“Now everyone thinks they can make it as footballer, or at least make their dreams come true,” he said.
“In Bron we support Real Madrid 100%, we watch all the matches. When Real Madrid are playing everyone is watching.
“When he can come to Lyon or Bron he’ll visit and play a five-a-side with us older guys, and when the kids see him, he’ll stop and speak to them.
“I would say that he has inspired many in Terraillon [a neighbourhood in Bron].
“We’re proud of him. We have one dream here – and that is that he wins the Ballon d’Or and we wish him all the best in the world.”
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