Recap: Real Madrid win the Copa del Rey after beating Osasuna 1-2 in the final (Sport1)
Karim Benzema's first goal for Real Madrid was scored in September 2009. Ruud van Nistelrooy, in his last appearance in a white uniform, was the cook - and also the first to hug the excited French teenager. On the pitch that evening were Raul, Gotti, Fernando Gago and even Lassana Diarra. And the opponent was pottery. Remember? Probably not, as it was the club's only modest season in the top division. He has long been immersed in the fifth division.
Yes, that was a long time ago. Benzema arrived at Real Madrid in the first summer of president Florentino Pérez in his second spell at the club - and it was an extravagant summer. Cristiano Ronaldo and Xabi Alonso were signed, and they were all far more high-profile acquisitions than the 21-year-old French striker. If anyone had predicted then that this skinny guy would one day become one of the greatest players in the club's history, they probably wouldn't have believed him. In the stands of Santiago Bernabéu there were those who were more enthusiastic at the time than Alvaro Arbeloa. The efficient defender who could function on both flanks also arrived that summer, and there's no arguing that the team needed him more at any given time.
Remove the question marks. Benzema bids farewell (Photo by Getty Images, PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP)
There were also those who argued that Benzema made a mistake when he chose Madrid. Alex Ferguson was eager to bring him to Old Trafford, and in many ways it was much easier to acclimatise to life at Manchester United without Cristiano Ronaldo than to adjust to Real just as the Portuguese landed. Gonzalo Higuain was the main contender for the expansion striker slot, and the Argentine had considerable advantages. But the Frenchman always knew where he wanted to go. The white number 9 shirt was his lifelong dream, because Brazilian Ronaldo was his role model. This is how he imagined himself when he watched the performance of the phenomen on the Internet, and Peres' offer could not be refused. In his first season, Portugal's Ronaldo was given the number 9 because his 7 was occupied by Raul, but in 2010 everything worked out. Cristiano, of course, became 7, Benzema became 9, and so he stayed for a dozen years plus one year.
Yesterday he wore this shirt for the last time. Only in the morning did Benzema inform coach Carlo Ancelotti that he had decided to leave the club, at noon Real issued an official statement on the matter, and in the evening the fans rose to their feet when the Frenchman was substituted towards the end of the match against Athletic Bilbao, just minutes after allowing his last goal, his 354th in all competitions - second only to Cristiano in Real's history. It's a shame he didn't get a chance to add an assist on this evening, in a game that was weak in all parameters, and certainly by his standards, because Benzema is Real's all-time assists scorer with 165. 47 of them went to Cristiano, and Benzema cooked up more than a tenth of the Portuguese's 450 goals at Real. Needless to say, no one has come close to this statistic, and today - when Benzema parted ways with the club to which he devoted the vast majority of his career - some would say that he is no less important for Real from a historical perspective than CR7.
Of course, this may be an exaggeration, but the parallel is not far-fetched – and it's time to mention that for too many years it did come across as delusional. For too many years, a huge question mark hovered over Benzema in Madrid, he was criticized in the media and booed quite a few times from the stands, and almost every summer the simple question was asked - when will the team upgrade the position of central striker to a more serious star? It began, naturally, already during the first season, which was quite lukewarm - continued even more intensely later on.
Benzema's tenure at Real can be roughly divided into 3 parts.
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Didn't overestimate it. Mourinho with Benzema (Photo: GettyImages)
The first is the Jose Mourinho era. The Portuguese arrived at the Santiago Bernabéu a year after the Frenchman, immediately after celebrating his Champions League win with Inter Milan in this stadium, with the stated aim of bringing the Whites a long-awaited tenth trophy after a long drought that stretched back to 2002. It didn't happen, because in the 3 seasons of the special, Real were always eliminated from Europe in the semi-finals, and if you ask the coach he would point to the lack of quality in the area as one of the main reasons for this.
Mourinho did not overestimate Benzema, did not see him as a player of the line-up, and designated him for a role in the rotation despite the Frenchman scoring 78 goals during this period, and also proving himself as a team player. In the impeachment attempts, not only Higuain was preferred over him, but even Emmanuel Adebayor arrived on a rather bizarre loan deal from Manchester City in January 2011. Also remembered is Mourinho's statement that he was "forced to go hunting with a cat in the absence of a dog". In short, it was not a particularly happy era for the Frenchman, but he never gave up, and did not consider leaving. He came to Madrid to shine in Real.
The second part is the Zinedine Zidane era, which dates back to 2013 when Zizou was Ancelotti's assistant in the Italian's first spell on the bench. This period was very different – life without Mourinho was more comfortable, Higuain was sold to Napoli, Benzema became a bunker in the set-up, and his collaboration with Ronaldo improved as time progressed. It was also during this period that Champions League wins began to flow. 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018... Real once again dominated the continent with a high hand, and the striker was an integral part of that celebration.
However, alongside the team's success, his reputation was still not perfect – far from it. Many fans, and even some commentators, have suggested that he receives unlimited credit from Zidane because they are both French of Algerian descent, and therefore have a common language. Another way to damage Benzema's image was by stating that he only plays because Ronaldo likes to be by his side. This, of course, is a great compliment, but it can be distorted and turned into a disadvantage - because ostensibly without the Portuguese Real would prefer a scorer who reaches more scoring situations and utilizes them with better percentages. And here you have the fact – only in his fourth Champions League final did Benzema find the net, and that too only courtesy of Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius – and in the weakest individual season of his career that yielded just 12 goals in all competitions.
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He was accused of playing only because of Ronaldo. Benzema (Photo: Reuters)
So when Zidane and Ronaldo left that summer 2018, it was crystal clear to many Madrid journalists that Real could no longer rely on Benzema. The Frenchman decided otherwise, flourished in the Portuguese's absence, and then – after Zidane's surprise return for another term – steered Real to the title that was registered in his name at the height of the coronavirus crisis in 2020. This was the promo for the third part that started when Zizou stepped aside for the second time.
In the third part, which started last season and also peaked at the time, Benzema was finally a superstar and leader with the captain's armband on his arm. No "if", no "but", no reservations whatsoever. A true superstar in every sense of the word, who was at the center of an incredible season in the Champions League with 10 goals in the knockout stage. Along the way, Real also won the title last season, and with 44 goals, Benzema delivered one of the greatest single-player seasons ever. The Ballon d'Or isn't exactly a measure of anything, but the Frenchman won it in 2022 by such a huge margin of all the other competitors that even the France Football award gets relevance – and for Benzema it was of particular importance.
Once, way back in 2010, when he was excluded from the squad for the World Cup in South Africa, then-France coach Raymond Domenech stated that the young striker did not have a satisfactory work ethic. "If he had invested a tenth of Cristiano, he would have won the Ballon d'Or," said the controversial boss. Well, Benzema certainly took that to heart. He was a professional even in his youth, but belonged to a dubious generation with Hatem Ben Arfa, Samir Nasri and Jérémie Menez, did not sever ties with criminal friends from the Lyon crime neighborhood, was involved in a number of criminal scandals, and suffered from a damaged image – in part due to his continued exclusion from the national team by Didier Deschamps. It took a real shift of consciousness to change that, and it was done. Winning the Ballon d'Or was the clearest sign of its completion.
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The image hurt. Benzema in the French national team (Photo: Reuters)
And now, when most of his ambitions have been fulfilled, when he has surpassed Brazilian Ronaldo in terms of goals and titles, he has decided to vacate the number 9 shirt for the future heir. The original plan was to extend his contract for another season, and the club was eager to do so. The star is expected to soon detail the reasons that led him to change his mind, but his legacy would no longer seriously change. It would have been nice to add a sixth Champions League win and a fifth title in 2024, but the striker may have felt that at the age of 35 he would not be able to replicate the greatest season, and the Saudi offer was a bit too big to turn down at this stage of his career.
And so, after years of doubts and doubts, he leaves on his own terms, as the undisputed hero, as the reigning winner of the Ballon d'Or. "I worked with one of the best players in history, with a perfect striker, who is also a friendly, humble and serious person. We should be grateful for what he did at the club - something legendary, unforgettable, that will remain in history forever," Ancelotti said goodbye. Not many would have predicted such a farewell after 14 years when Benzema scored in front of a pottery, but no one would dispute the Italian today.
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