Saint Benzema. Benzema the Savior. Star, Benzema. Reading the U.S. press, one would think that Les Bleus was composed of Karim Benzema and a bunch of supporting guys running around the field. The man long prophesied by some to be the next to fill the shoes of legendary Zinedine Zidane, who was not called up for the national team during the last World Cup as he was not playing up to snuff, is finally in a groove—and having a phenomenal tournament.
Benzema has had several clutch plays. He scored twice in both of France’s group-stage games, albeit against Switzerland his second effort was not counted as it swept into the net just as the referee’s whistle ended the game. After both games, Benzema was named man of the match for his efforts. Importantly, he’s not just scoring goals but also delivering on-field opportunities for others. Following the game the Real Madrid man downplayed his star turn when he told France 24, “I profit also from the work of my teammates. It is not only me, it is everyone.”
This was not the first time this tournament that Benzema has touted the team first and his playing prowess as a product of this teamwork. Following France’s first game against Honduras, Benzema responded to a question from French sports daily L’Équipe about whether he’s the star of the team, saying instead that, “No, the star, that’s the team. You can do nothing without your teammates. We work together.”
So then why does the U.S. media put Benzema on a pedestal, to portray him as the star of the French team, when in fact Les Bleus have a deep roster of talent as several Europe-based journalists remind us? In last Friday’s 5-2 battle against Switzerland, Benzema scored once; the other four goals came from four different teammates. It was a group effort. I’m certainly not disputing that Benzema is a superb player—he is, and then some. He’s having a suburb year, as Christopher Clarey pointed out last week in the New York Times.
Yet, I scratch my head wondering why the U.S. press, unlike other European outlets, fails to run stories on other players, such as Blaise Matuidi, Paul Pogma, Mathieu Valbuena, Mamadou Sakho, Olivier Giroud, and others who have all had a stellar tournament run thus far. Is it because U.S. media is still so new to the global game that they focus their attention on the Big Four leagues (the Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga, and Serie A) that are not France’s Ligue 1? That would not, however, explain the failure to sink teeth into the stories of Les Bleus who play in these leagues and their terrific turns in Brazil.
Is it because American journalists, when they are able to speak another language, are more at ease in say, Spanish, as opposed to French? (Your high school French teacher is giving you that severe disapproving look just now). Several of Les Bleus play in England and are more than proficient in English, and some outliers speak (and Tweet) in languages other than French and English.
Maybe it is because French teams, and perhaps the French Football Federation, are not as expert at marketing themselves abroad in the United States, of exporting the histories, merits, and accomplishments of its players as other national leagues or teams?
Or perhaps it has something to do with the emphasis in the United States upon individual star athletes, as opposed to the team mentality found in many European countries, France included. Jonathan Abrams, in his recent Grantland.com piece on San Antonio Spurs’ Frenchman Boris Diaw, highlighted this difference when he quoted Diaw saying, “The way we play over there [in France], it’s everybody touching the ball, and you try to be unselfish, be a good teammate, play for your teammates, try to get everybody to have fun.”
The entire world witnessed what occurred when the football Les Bleus didn’t have this team ethos: Knysna anyone? The fall-out was spectacular and the team is still recovering.
Perhaps this is good time to remind the media that whenever France plays as a team, as a collection of players rather than as a group of stars, Les Bleus fare awfully well.
Who can ever forget, or fail to reference, the generation of ’98? While they had Zinedine Zidane, they also had Lilian Thuram, Patrick Vieira, David Trezeguet, Marcel Desailly, Thierry Henry, Youri Djorkaeff, and many others, including Les Bleus’ present head coach Didier Deschamps. These players played as a team. Their effort won France its first World Cup on home soil.
The 1984 teams—the one that won the European Championship that June and the entirely different set of players who won the Olympic football tournament at the Los Angeles Games—took to the field as a collective group despite having stars, such as the “carré magique”: Michel Platini, Alain Giresse, Jean Tigana, and Luiz Fernandez. The 1984 documentary The Wonderful Adventure of French Football (La merveilleuse aventure du football français) visually reinforces the notion that Les Bleus success was thanks to many, not just one man named Platini.
For even more longer-term context, look to Les Tricolores of 1958—yes, the French team is known over time as both Les Bleus and Les Tricolores in reference to the national flag. The team that took France to third place at the World Cup in Sweden that year boasted legend Raymond Kopa, Just Fontaine (who still holds the record for most goals scored in a single World Cup), and others who made their tournament success a team effort. It was not the Just Fontaine show, though arguably it really could have been.
What to take away from all of this? While fêting Karim Benzema’s bon temps in Brazil, don’t sell his teammates short. For Les Bleus to progress to the Round of 16, it will require a full-on team effort, not the result of one man’s efforts. Benzema may be quite involved, but others will help him out. And that’s part of the beauty that we’re finding with this incarnation of Les Bleus. They appear to genuinely like each other and enjoy spending time together, at least to the outside world. This makes in phenomenally easier to play as a team when it counts. During their last game, it looked like they were having a superb time playing football—together.
And if you still can’t get enough Benzema? Watch the recent Stéphane Groussard documentary, Benzema par Karim, which aired earlier this month on L’Equipe 21 TV. Episode one (of four) is available here.