Karim Benzema should get to 100 caps for France, only it won’t happen at this World Cup. He was ruled out with a thigh problem in training here adding to the litany of injury worries that have hit the defending champions.
No wonder ‘malediction’, or curse, is the most used word in references to the ‘Les Bleus’. Shades of 2002 maybe as well when they came to Asia with Zinedine Zidane far from fit.
France will not seek a replacement for Benzema and will continue with 25 players.
To the list that had Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, the heart of the midfield that gave France the World Cup in 2018, goalkeeper Mike Maignan, defender Presnel Kimpembe and forward Christopher Nkunku, the name of the current Ballon d’Or was added on Saturday. Defender Raphael Varane too is recovering from a hamstring injury and has not played since October 22.
“In my life I have never given up but tonight I have to think about the team as I have always done, so reason tells me to leave my place to someone who can help our squad have a good World Cup. Thank you for all your messages of support,” said Benzema, who will be 35 next month.
An MRI scan on Saturday, following pain in his left thigh, found “a rectus femoris tendon injury” which could take at least three weeks to heal.
“I am extremely sad for Karim who made this World Cup a major goal,” said coach Didier Deschamps. Benzema, top scorer for France with three goals in the 2014 finals, was out of the national team set-up for almost six years following a sex tape scandal involving a teammate. He was recalled by Deschamps for the European championship last year, where France exited early, and helped ‘Les Bleus’ win the Nations League.
“Despite this new blow for the French team, I have full confidence in my group. We will do everything to meet the huge challenge that awaits us,” said Deschamps, who recently completed 10 years as France coach.
Deschamps told France’s TF1 network on Sunday that though the setback was “not nice”, he was confident in the depth of his squad. “We have an objective and we have a quality squad with players who know what awaits them. I have confidence in them.”
He dismissed questions about the team’s handling of Benzema, who had been nursing an injury for the past month. “I know that you’re looking for controversy,” he said. “Everything is under control, (the injury) was not even caused by him accelerating or shooting. Anyone could have a problem like that and get injured.
Benzema was in Doha struggling to recover from a knee and hamstring problem that prevented him from getting a full half of football at Real Madrid after winning the Ballon d’Or in October.
The striker with 97 international caps has been hit by injuries this term, being ruled out for 22 days with a muscle problem in September and again for shorter durations in October and November.
In Doha, Benzema was training separately, teammate Adrien Rabiot told the media here on Friday. “I think Karim will play when he feels ready,” he said.
Benzema is the first Ballon d’Or since Denmark’s Allan Simonsen in 1978 to miss a World Cup. He was adjudged Europe’s best following a season that saw him top the scoring charts in La Liga (27 goals, 9 more than Iago Aspas, who was second) and help Real Madrid win the Champions League. There too he was the highest scorer with 15 goals; 10 of them coming in the knockout rounds. He notched up hat-tricks against Paris St-Germain and Chelsea, helping Real overcome first-leg deficits in both.
If there is a silver lining, it is that France still have the frontline trio of Kylian Mbappe, Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann. Mbappe has said he preferred partnering with Giroud because that gives him more freedom.
“A team like France with Mbappe is comfortable playing counter-attacking but you have to be good at defending too. In the last World Cup, they didn’t have the highest level of possession but in transition they were most dangerous because they had players who were comfortable with that style,” said Frenchman Arsene Wenger here on Saturday. The former Arsenal manager is FIFA’s Chief of Global Development and part of FIFA’s Technical Study Group for this World Cup.
Deschamps has struggled to find a way to get Benzema and Mbappe to combine and though Benzema’s absence could mean one problem less to deal with, it is something the French boss would rather have. France, who are in Group D, begin against Australia on Tuesday.