There’s a reason Karim Benzema is absent from France’s hall of idols. In issue 08, Philippe Auclair argues that it starts with his name.
I’d already begun writing this piece when the bombs went off in Brussels. It’s the city where I’d spent two years of my life and to which I return as often as I can, knowing there’ll always be a friend with whom I can share a beer or two. Messy, unkempt, wonderful Brussels—now wounded, bleeding, heartbroken Brussels.
UEFA has suggested that—in light of this latest atrocity, four months after the foiled attack by three suicide bombers on the Stade de France in November—Euro 2016 could be played behind closed doors.
Stadiums are theaters of war: the execution grounds in Santiago, Kaboul, and Pyongyang; the Vel’ d’Hiv’ in Paris, where thousands of Jews were gathered before being sent to the death camps. And “war” is the word French Prime Minister Manuel Valls chose to describe the present situation. Valls, the Barcelona soci, the football nut who, a few days beforehand, had spoken against the inclusion of Karim Benzema in the French Euro squad.
What do the slaughter of innocents and the misdemeanors of a gifted but not terribly bright football star have in common? The answer in France is: more than you’d think. When I was writing a biography of Thierry Henry, my publisher—wisely—advised me to drop a couple of pages I’d written late at night, fortified by red wine and letting off so much steam that my vision was no doubt impaired. I’d been writing about the gaping wound festering in French society—the toxic legacy of imperialism, ethnic fault lines (some of them incomprehensible to outsiders), the weakening of the Roman Catholic faith and the rise of religious fanatism, racism and its pendant, ostracism. Since the 1950s, concrete ghettos have been thrown up to house the immigrant workforce that fueled the postwar economic boom, with no discernible pattern—unless confining the have-nots to high-rise projects can be thought of as a policy.
Almost every significant city in France—not just Paris and Marseilles, where Henry and Zidane, respectively, were born—is now surrounded by a ring of ugliness and criminality (at least in the dark imaginations of those who live outside the cités). Benzema, too, was born and grew up—the seventh of eight children—in one of these suburban wildernesses, Bron. Six miles from Lyon’s famed restaurants, Bron is often described as a lawless territory in which the feral offspring of immigrants are left to drift into petty criminality and worse. Human tumbleweed. If you listen to the apostles of fear, this is the kind of place where the seed of Islamism is sown and yields such a bountiful harvest.
The truth is somewhat different. Bron grew from a small village into an unremarkable medium-size town in the 1960s and is proud of its annual Book Fair, its film festival, and its hip-hop dance school. It is also the home of one of Lyon’s universities and of one of France’s busiest business airports. A fifth of its total population is registered with one of the city’s 40 sports clubs. You who enter Bron, you’re not entering hell. But this doesn’t fit with the narrative in which Karim Benzema is now a very public character.
It hardly needs be said that Benzema has never aligned himself with the men who are soiling every page of his religion’s holy book and have turned Islam into a death cult. But this is 2016, and this is France, a few weeks away from organizing its biggest footie jamboree since 1998. This is a country so caught up in its incapacity to define any kind of modern identity that someone who is just a well-above- average professional footballer finds himself a public figure in something far bigger than a sordid case of blackmail. Wrong name. Wrong background. Wrong attitude.
Ah yes, blackmail. You may have heard about the so-called scandale de la sextape by now. Benzema’s France teammate, Mathieu Valbuena, filmed himself (or was filmed) enjoying what boyfriends and girlfriends do. The video (stored on a smartphone, it seems) was almost certainly passed on by an Olympique de Marseille employee (who acted as an unofficial IT consultant to the club’s players) to Marseillais criminal elements. And they almost certainly passed it on to their Lyon equivalents.
At which point Karim Benzema entered the fray. He warned Valbuena during a French get-together at the Clairefontaine HQ that he’d better come to an agreement with whomever had the sextape (namely, an old chum of Benzema’s, who’d spent eight of his 32 years in jail for drug trafficking and armed robbery, and with whom he’d joked about Valbuena’s predicament). Those conversations were taped by French police and leaked to the press, leading to the scandale that led Prime Minister Valls to declare Benzema persona non grata in the French national team.
Benzema, in all this, had been an imbecile at best; at worst, the accomplice of “friends” who’ve been surfing on the wake of his fame ever since he was handpicked by Olympique Lyonnais to join their academy. A young man then but not so young anymore, Benzema retained a lazy loyalty to the banlieue he’d left long ago, like one of the soldiers Flaubert described, muddied and bewildered, on the battlefield of Waterloo: clueless, rudderless, lost in the mayhem they’d been caught up in.
Extraordinarily, despite the prospect of five years behind bars for his involvement in the sting, Benzema continues to play well. His form with his club, Real Madrid, didn’t suffer from his public shaming. If anything, it prospered, as if all this were happening to someone else—which, perhaps, he thought it was, given that life had been so kind, so forgiving, to him until then. No doubt his advisers, who knew everything there was to know (as we all did) about his dalliances and embarrassing relationships, assured him that it would be all right, as it was when he escaped punishment after cavorting with an underage prostitute who has made quite a career of it afterward. (Just google “Zahia—Benzema” if you wish to know more about this.)
More recently, Benzema’s been caught in another mess. He was called to testify as a witness in the inquest into a money-laundering scheme—in which he appears to have been a victim and nothing else. He lost a couple of million euros in the business, his entourage says, having been sweet-talked into lending his name to the dodgy purchase of a Parisian restaurant, which was then sold at a massive loss to hide the proceeds of drug deals. Not that Benzema appeared bothered. Coming back from a two-month-long layoff due to injury, he scored a goal and provided an assist in Real Madrid’s 4-0 victory over Sevilla in La Liga. “Indispensible!” raved the Madrid papers.
In France, we’re not so sure. And not just because of Benzema’s modest statistics with the national team. A record of 0.33 goals per game doesn’t compare favorably with that of that “failure” Eric Cantona, who averaged almost a goal every two games—without taking penalties. Neither is it markedly superior to those of Olivier Giroud or Pierre- André Gignac (respectively 0.29 and 0.27). Meanwhile, everybody’s convinced Antoine Griezmann will improve on his current numbers (six goals in 22 internationals) and Anthony Martial is destined for far greater things.
Given France’s embarrassment of riches up-front at the moment, Benzema’s presence (or absence) in Didier Deschamps’s squad of 23 is unlikely to determine by itself whether the host country can progress further than the quarterfinals, the stage les Bleus reached in 2012. Neither is Benzema as decisive with his club side as is often stated. In over six-and-a-half years at Santiago Bernabeú, Florentino Pérez’s pet signing has yet to approach, let alone beat, Gonzalo Higuaín’s return of 27 goals in 32 La Liga games in the 2009–10 season. This is the Higuaín of whom it was said, repeatedly, that he fell short, and not by a whisker, of what constituted “international class.”
Remember Benzema at the 2014 World Cup? Three goals, one of them a penalty kick (he missed a spot kick as well in France’s second game), against Honduras and Switzerland, after which nothing. Against Germany, like many of his teammates, Karim went missing, dropping so far back to claim the ball that the French played without a focal point in attack for the entire game. The future world champions won at a canter.
Whether or not Benzema’s inclusion would help France this summer is not what exercises people. With Martial, Coman, Giroud, Gignac, Ribéry, a reborn Ben Arfa, and the brilliant Antoine Griezmann, les Bleus are not exactly short of options up-front. In other countries, the abscess would have been lanced a long time ago, as soon as it became known that Karim (as his manager, Zinedine Zidane, and French FA president Noël Le Graët insist on calling him, whereas Valbuena, the real victim in this, is rarely referred to as Mathieu) had been party to the attempted extortion of his teammate. Benzema would have been told to solve his problems with his country’s justice system before he could join the national team again—if exonerated, that is. What happened was the opposite. Numerous people in the football microcosm immediately proclaimed their support and solidarity. “Innocent until proven guilty,” they said and said again. Fair enough, of course, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should be wearing your country’s jersey while waiting to take your seat in the dock.
Others took a rather different view. I heard Benzema referred to as “scum” on national radio and much, much worse in private conversations. Judging by an opinion poll conducted at the end of last year, 82% of France’s supporters do not wish him to represent his country again.
I am convinced that if the player involved in le scandale de la sextape had been called Adrien Dubois or Edouard Gonzalez or Baba Traoré, none of this would be happening. But he’s called Karim Benzema. An Arab name. (His father is actually a Kabyle, but again, let’s not spoil the narrative.) He’s known to listen to recordings of suras from the Quran before games and prays before kickoff (as Mesut Özil and countless others do without being vilified). He doesn’t sing the national anthem (neither did Laurent Blanc or Michel Platini).
Zidane was the “immigrant” you wished to have as a son-in-law, with his beautiful clear eyes, his gentle demeanor, his obvious love for France’s national team. So was Henry, who was proud to call himself French and became one of the country’s best ambassadors wherever he played.
Benzema’s real problem is that he ticks almost every single box in the list of what so-called homegrown French fear and detest, even hate, the most. We’ve come a long way from the days of Black-Blanc-Beur, non? The days when France believed (not for long, but did believe) that bleu, blanc, and rouge were the colors of the rainbow.
Benzema hasn’t helped his cause with statements such as “I quite like the France team [but] Algeria is my country, my heart; France, it’s just the sports side of things.” Is his “cause” even worth defending? At times you’d think he could headline a remake of Dumb and Dumber. At others you wonder how someone who was taken care of by Olympique Lyonnais from the age of 9 could be so reckless, so stupid, that he’d carry on mingling with people he knew as a boy—people who became criminals—once it was clear that football would make him a rich and famous man.
And now, this: payback time. Blind support on one side, hatred on the other. A dimwit caught in the crossfire of a war he didn’t start or contribute to, but in which he is a powerless actor. A war in which, as the bombs go off, we are all victims, Karim Benzema included.