Tom Kelly


Ahead of Lyon’s second leg tie at Manchester United we profile their star man, Karim Benzema.

In Brazil on many occasions we have seen players touted as the next Pele, in Argentina, many have never lived up to the hype of being the new Maradona. In France, Karim Benzema has been billed as the new Zinedine Zidane so what is it that has drawn this comparison?

On the surface comparisons seem puzzling. Benzema is more of an out and out striker. Position wise he is similar to Henry or Anelka, a player who likes to drift out to the wings and pull away his marker. Benzema could be described as the model, modern player. Tall, quick, powerful and an eye for goal that has seen him score 16 times this season. Zidane however, was something else. Elegant and exquisitely gifted in a technical sense Zidane was a playmaker, not a great goalscorer. Zidane made the simplest things beautiful and the grace of the man is shown by the fact that a film (Zidane, A 21st Century Portrait) simply showing Zidane throughout a match proved popular across Europe.

Benzema however does not class Zidane as his idol or inspiration. It is instead one of Zidane’s former teammates in whos footsteps he wants to follow in. ‘Since I was small, Ronaldo is my point of reference, my source of inspiration.’ he said. Benzema admits that he has followed the career of Ronaldo closely ever since ‘El Fenomeno’ moved to Barcelona in the mid 90s. He speaks in awe of the way that Ronaldo was able to combine ‘technique, power, speed, dribbling and goals’ into his game, which made him, at his peak, almost unplayable.

One comparison that can be drawn with Zidane is that Benzema also has an Algerian background. Born in Lyon to Algerian parents in 1987 Benzema once rejected the opportunity to play for the North African side. ‘Algeria it is the country of my parents, it is in my heart, but as far as football is concerned, I will play for the French national team.’

Spotted by Lyon’s scouts playing for his youth team Bron Terraillon in 1996 at the tender age of nine and was quickly signed up to the club’s excellent youth academy. The huge potential earmarked by scouts soon began to be realised.

Benzema scored goals for fun in the youth sides enjoying a smooth ascent to the first team squad. Following caps for France at U-16, U-17, and U-18 level, scoring an impressive 20 goals in 35 appearances for France’s youth teams, Benzema made his senior debut in March 2007 scoring in a 1-0 win.

First team opportunities for his club were limited until this year with Fred, Baros, Carew, Govou and Wiltord all players ahead of Benzema in the pecking order, but those who wrote off Lyon in the summer after several big name departures such as Malouda and Abidal clearly didn’t anticipate Benzema’s rise to prominence, or at least expect it to come so quickly.

Lyon manager Alan Perrin seems determined to protect his young prodigy and burnout is his major fear. Perrin has often started with Brazilian striker Fred this season using Benzema as a substitute looking to make an impact. But constant transfer rumours in the press mean that Benzema’s stock continues to rise. Manchester United, Arsenal, Real Madrid & AC Milan have all been met with a £40million price tag. Club chairman Jean-Michel Aulas complained that United have expressed an interest in the highly-rated 20-year-old striker, which he believes is ‘destabilising’. Aulas may have to become more accustomed to this sort of speculation however and a summer move wouldn’t be surprising despite Benzema’s apparent desire to stay at Lyon. ‘I am naturally very flattered by the interest, but I’ve got a contract here to 2012 and I won’t be leaving before then.’

Despite his form this season French great Michel Platini believes Benzema cannot be judged until the end of his career. To even come close to Zidane’s honours as a player will be a near impossible task, one that no French international may ever match. 3 World Player of the Year Awards, European Footballer of the Year, a World Cup, European Championship medal, Champions League medal and 7 domestic medals is an incredible honours list. If Benzema continues to progress at the rate he has done this season though, it will not be long before he is ranked alongside names such as Platini, Ronaldo & Zidane. It is that company Benzema is eager to join.