After over a decade of elite football being dominated by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, it appears that patience is a virtue, afterall.
One to attest to this would be Karim Benzema, who must have been wondering what else he could have done over the last few years after the 34-year-old Real Madrid centre-forward finally won the prestigious Ballon d’Or.
It was made all the more sweeter being presented the award by fellow Frenchman and his former Los Blancos manager Zinedine Zidane, who was also the last Les Bleus player to win it, arguably for the role he played in the 1998 World Cup.
An award voted for by a panel of 100 journalists, it was effectively a clean sweep – the heavy odds-on favourite beating second-placed Sadio Mane and Kevin De Bruyne, who came third, in comprehensive fashion.
The hitman, who is predicted to star for his country at the World Cup this winter, was irrepressible last season, helping his club to win La Liga and the Champions League, playing a key role throughout.
With 44 goals in 46 games, this included back-to-back hat-tricks against PSG and Chelsea in the European knock-out rounds, while he also netted three across two legs in the dramatic semi-final against Manchester City.
There was little doubt that anyone else was really going to challenge for the award; the player’s exploits in Europe no doubt having a major role in the decision-making process.
One Of The World’s Best?
It is believed that Benzema, during his time with Los Blancos, was once quoted as saying that he tries to base his game on the Brazilian Ronaldo and his consistent exploits over the last few years make it easy to draw comparisons.
He arrived at the capital club in 2009; his move being somewhat overshadowed at the time by the mega transfers of (Cristiano) Ronaldo, Kaka and Xabi Alonso, plus a number of other top players in what was a blockbuster summer transfer window for the club.
For the better part of a decade, he watched as the likes of Raul, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Gonzla Higuain, Ronaldo, and Gareth Bale stole the show, though was an ever-present, becoming known for his dogged determination.
Indeed, during Jose Mourinho’s tenure as manager in 2010, the Portugal boss famously criticised the player’s work ethic, even going as far as to claim that the player was lazy. If anything, this spurred him on.
Following Mourinho’s departure, the club went on to win four Champions League trophies in five years, including three consecutively – Benzema playing a key role – last season’s win took his personal tally to five during his Los Blancos career.
Benzema has once again had a respectable start to the 2022/23 campaign, with four goals in six La Liga matches and one in the European Super Cup victory (2-0) over Eintracht Frankfurt; however, he is yet to net in three Champions League games.
While Ronaldo and Messi, who dominated for so long, perhaps seem to have finally fallen from their lofty perch, Benzema certainly made a case for being one of the best natural number nine’s currently. Robert Lewandowski also falls into a similar bracket at 34 and was unlucky not to split the top three in the voting, finishing in fourth place. It should be noted, though, that the Pole won the Gerd Muller trophy for the best striker award.
Erling Braut Haaland could well dominate this season – one of the next generation of superstars emerging and arguably the most gifted centre forward for a long time. At 22, his potential is frightening, already debatably of the same standard as Benzema – Kylian Mbappe could also fall into the same category; however, he is more versatile, being able to play across the front three, though his form needs to pick up right now.
His name was bandied around the Real Madrid press room during the summer as a potential target, only for president Florentino Perez to break from character and claim ‘we have Benzema’ – along those lines.
Older The Better In Football Or League Dependent?
In bygone years, at least dating back to the early 2000s, the majority of top players were considered past their peak from 31 onwards – age catching up with them, their pace having declined and form dropping.
A number of factors could well have challenged that theory over the last decade, especially considering the likes of Ronaldo, Messi, Benzema and Lewandowski. Players appear to be taking better care of themselves to prolong their form. The former duo were undoubtedly at the top of their game until their mid-30s, while the latter pair still likely have a couple of years playing at the highest level.
It could also be argued that apart from Ronaldo, very early on in his career, neither of those players has featured in the Premier League – considered to be the most frenetic and physically challenging competition in world football. The Bundesliga perhaps puts up a challenge, though only a handful of teams play at a high intensity.
When you look at the winners of the Ballon d’Or over the last decade, all of these have hailed from La Liga (three from Real Madrid – Ronaldo, Luka Modric and Benzema) – one of the least relentless leagues in the world and no doubt one that players can enjoy a high standard of football well into their thirties.
A shoutout to De Bruyne, Mohammed Salah, et al. If you want to win the Ballon d’Or, go play for Real Madrid.