The ball dropped out of the night sky to where Karim Benzema had appeared, undetected again, between Martin Valjent and Brian Olivan. As it fell from high, he controlled it, ran to one side and, right-footed, scored his second goal of the evening, the ball taking a deflection on its way into the Mallorca net. A few minutes later, the man who can never be taken off was taken off, withdrawn to a standing ovation, the appreciation unanimous now.
None of which would have been particularly unusual except that Benzema had controlled that falling ball with his back. There is a neat photo of the moment he caught it, arms out, the ball hovering just above his left shoulder, eyes wide as if guiding it down with a glance, subjecting it to his will like some Jedi Master. It looks like a magic trick. Which maybe it is.
— Sid Lowe (@sidlowe) September 23, 2021
Maybe it is a trick, anyway. Maybe it’s not entirely real. After Real Madrid‘s 6-1 win over Mallorca on Wednesday night, Benzema didn’t talk. Teammates did but they didn’t know or didn’t give the answer to the question everyone was asking: Did he mean that? When it happened, there had been a kind of collective gasp, an “oooh” all around the stadium. “What the…?” “Did he just…? Did he really just take it down and past two defenders with his … back?”
As it sank in, in the stands at the Santiago Bernabeu, everyone wanted a replay to answer the same question — and yet, when you think about it, there is no replay like the mind’s eye, the imagination, nothing more meaningful than the moment. Better to suspended disbelief. You don’t remember what happened so much as how it made you feel. If Benzema didn’t mean it, would it mean less? Well, yeah, it probably would. Maybe. Or maybe not. Better just to believe he did.
And that’s the thing: You could believe that.
The photo suggests he might have, you know, the gesture of a man providing a place for it to land. Besides, that they even asked said something. That they didn’t just dismiss it. That it wasn’t written off as an outrageous fluke. With others, it would have been. Not with Benzema. You could believe it, not least because you couldn’t always believe all those other things he did, but soon you saw.
“He’s the best striker in the world,” Carlo Ancelotti said on Wednesday night.
That’s not really something Ancelotti said last time he was at Madrid, in 2015. Nor, in truth, did anyone else. It may well be that they still don’t, when perhaps they should. Back then he had Cristiano Ronaldo after all — and he was. Partly because he had Benzema behind him. Nor is saying that something that is sufficient anymore, Ancelotti reckons.
“Calling him a forward feels like it stops short to me,” the Madrid coach had insisted recently. “He’s a very complete player. He’s more complete than he was five years ago.”
He’s allowed to be, anyway. And the tangibles are on his team now, too. The facilitator has become the finisher. Which isn’t to say he has stopped being the facilitator. The everything, really: Watch him up close and it’s startling how many moves don’t just end with him but start with him, too. So often, his runs make the passes. So often, his passes make the runs. He tells others where to go, with his feet, every touch impeccable. He is, well, the footballer.
There was always something of that, of course. And to listen to Benzema you would conclude that, far from him changing, football has — like there has been a collective awakening, recognising something everyone else resisted rather than something he was yet to earn. He has talked a lot about how people, his father included, learn to “understand” his game. He has said he plays for those who “know” the game, the connoisseurs with refined palates.
Jorge Valdano, say. He wrote not long ago about how he had been reading of a farmer who mistook a puma for a smaller cat.
“The puma is skinny because the farmer fed him milk,” the former Argentine international wrote. “Just as happened with Benzema when they mistook his style for evidence of a man who didn’t care, his ability to apply pauses with laziness, his assists with a lack of ambition. No one recognised their error: in fact, they tended to think that it is Benzema who has changed, as if his class wasn’t something he was born with.”
He’s always been good, all right. Former Ballon d’Or winner Jean-Pierre Papin once said: “He has the power of Ronaldo, the speed of Ronaldinho, the class of [Thierry] Henry, the instinct of [David] Trezeguet.” Benzema was 19 then; he is 33 now. But while he has always been a great player, different too, it isn’t true that he has always been this player — a timely reminder that football, as the phrase goes, is played in the head even if the ball is played by the feet — that everyone plays within a context.
Benzema creates that context, constructs it. And that has shifted, which says much about him but which shouldn’t just say that it, that he is the same as ever. And now things are different. Now, he is better. Yeah, now maybe we are, too.
“He’s the best,” his manager said, but rare is the time when anyone else does. Or did, at least. For a long time, Benzema didn’t really appear in the conversations about the top strikers in the world. Six years away from the France squad don’t help, even more years alongside Ronaldo don’t either. And think for a moment about what it means for a player who can do this to have done that. He has scored 30, 27 and 30 in the three seasons since Ronaldo left. In part because he has had to.
There are moments, too, and this is his: eight goals, seven assists. That’s 15 of the 23 Real Madrid goals this season. No one in Europe’s top five leagues has scored more. No one in those leagues has assisted more. In 2021, only Robert Lewandowski has been directly involved in as much scoring — 23 goals, 11 assists for Benzema; 31 goals, three assists for the Pole.
There is also something cumulative, a case building, which is what cases are supposed to do. This summer, aged 33, Benzema quietly renewed his Real Madrid contract until 2023. Two reflections here: Who lasts that long at Madrid? And: Can you remember a single rumour about him departing, a single leveraged moment? This was his place. It is his now, responsibility and reward. This week, he scored his 200th league goal for Madrid. He has 287 in total. Alfredo Di Stefano has 308.
Alfredo Di Stefano, though.
And it’s not the goals: watch him, it’s everything. The vision, the movement, the imagination and intelligence, the improvisation, the touch so good that, yeah, he might have deliberately controlled it with his back. Enough unbelievable moments that this moment when the ball dropped from the sky became believable.
“Is there anything more you can say about him?” Ancelotti was asked, down under the stand sometime after midnight, Wednesday. There was a smile and a pause. “No,” he said.