Football Features

Who is La Liga’s most influential Frenchman of all time? Karim Benzema’s competition

By Matt Clark, from La Liga Lowdown

Published: 16:35, 4 December 2021

A vibrant multicultural European powerhouse on its northern border, France has provided Spain with some of its greatest-ever extranjeros. From World Cup winners and Ballon d’Or recipients, to the professional and dependable stalwarts over a sustained period of time, LaLiga loves a French import.

The debate about who has been the most significantly influential Frenchman is undoubtedly a lively one, with many suitable candidates for the crown. We will discuss three main protagonists as well as provide some honourable mentions to a few others.

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Antoine Griezmann has been in Spanish football for the majority of his life and the entirety of his professional career. Having made the move to Spain as a 14-year-old, he settled in San Sebastián and began to stand out for Real Sociedad. His impressive performances earned him a move to the capital, becoming Atlético Madrid’s main man up front, replacing Chelsea-bound Diego Costa.

Diego Simeone instantly took a shine to Griezmann, admiring his selfless running and endless work-rate. His productivity was high too, scoring more than 20 goals in all of the five seasons of his first spell with Atleti. The 2015/16 season was perhaps his peak. An impressive tally of 32 goals in all competitions put him in esteemed company among the most lethal forwards in Europe.

His performances in the Champions League in particular stood out, netting both goals in the 2-0 second-leg win over defending champions Barcelona at the Vicente Calderón and following that up with the decisive away goal in Munich to take Atleti to their second Champions League final in three seasons. Unfortunately for Griezmann, he missed a penalty in normal time, but had partial redemption in the shootout. Agonisingly for Atleti, the anguish of Lisbon was repeated in Milan.

2018 was a golden year, winning the 2018 Europa League and then the Super Cup either side of a World Cup triumph. That Europa League win was particularly special for Griezmann; he scored twice against French side Marseille on French soil. Magnifique. He made his move to Barcelona one year after his controversially public ‘decision’ to stay in Madrid, but his time in Catalunya flattered to deceive. Now back at Atleti, he seems more comfortable and is starting to find his rhythm again. A phenomenal footballer, one who works as hard as any, and a charismatic character, Griezmann is one of the standout Gallic imports.

The man of the moment, Karim Benzema has been a constant at Real Madrid for over a decade, and has been a part of some of the greatest moments in their history. From La Décima (Real Madrid’s 10th European Cup) to the three-peat, Benzema was often away from the limelight, rarely recognised for his incredible link-up ability and all-round game. He was dubbed ‘the nine who don’t score goals’, and José Mourinho once described him as a cat, referring to his shy and timid demeanour.

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All of that is history now. In the post-Cristiano world, Madridistas were desperate for someone to step up. Would it be Gareth Bale? New star Eden Hazard? No. The solution was right under their noses. The cat in the corner became the leading lion. To emphasise how seamlessly Benzema assumed the responsibility, you just need to look at his goal tally for the final two seasons with Ronaldo, compared to the three-and-a-bit campaigns since then. 19 and 12 was followed by 30, 27, 30 and 17 already in 2021/22. No-one can doubt his greatness any more.

Across his career, he has reached double figures in 12 consecutive seasons, as well as numerous assists for the bigger names of the time. As he approaches the landmark of 300 Real Madrid goals, Benzema is finally being appreciated on a wider scale, as seen by his fourth-placed finish at the Ballon d’Or, with many feeling he should have been higher still.

No foreign player has played more matches for the club than him, and only three have scored more goals. Soon – this season inevitably – he will surpass the great Alfredo di Stéfano and take his place on the podium of this grand club. The records continue to be broken and Benzema continues to improve with age. His impact on Spanish football is far from complete.

The final major French protagonist may have ended his association with Spanish football, but his mark on it is unprecedented. Zinedine Zidane was legendary enough as a player, but his achievements as a coach amplify his position beyond all challengers. Another World Cup winner, Zidane spent the final five years of his glorious playing career in Madrid, making 230 appearances for the club before retiring on his own terms.

A dazzling midfield player, with astonishing control of the ball, Zidane made even the most challenging of skills look effortlessly easy, and he played with a swagger typical of the joie de vivre associated with the French. Add in that goal at Hampden in the Champions League final and you have the perfect illustration of what Zidane brought to the club.

Many felt he retired too soon but Zidane has an inner steel and fortitude which has made him a winner wherever he has been. Who else but Zizou could score a Panenka in a World Cup final before signing off with a headbutt in the same game? As a coach, Zidane learned under the wing of Carlo Ancelotti and was his assistant for La Décima in 2014 before coaching Castilla, Madrid’s B-team.

When Rafa Benítez was sacked in January 2016, it was Zizou at the wheel. A few short months after arriving, Real Madrid were back on their European throne, and they became the first club to win three consecutive European crowns in the Champions League era. Zidane’s unrepeatable feat put him in an exclusive club alongside Bob Paisley and Ancelotti himself.

Zidane was the master of man-management and far more tactically astute than he is given credit for. Negotiating 12 consecutive knockout rounds against the likes of Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Atleti and Liverpool, Madrid were untouchable and had an almost mystical aura surrounding them. Once again, Zidane walked away on a high, but was back the following spring to save the club from the turmoil of 2018/19.

By 19/20, Zidane had perfected his Real Madrid 2.0 with a shift to defensive solidity, which was the backbone of their title. Zidane had reiterated that he was determined to win LaLiga again, to prove that the 2017 title wasn’t a fluke. He stated that leagues are the hardest thing to win because they demand consistency over time, and it clearly meant a lot to him to win his second.

The final season wasn’t as successful, but he walked away for a third time with his head held high and with a record that only Miguel Muñoz can better. Zidane won six trophies as a player and 11 as a coach in what will always be the gold standard for others to follow.

The Clásico divide of Spanish football means that there will always be arguments about who was better: Zidane or Guardiola. The undisputed kings of Europe will always lean heavily to continental success, while Guardiola revolutionised the style of play far more. But in terms of imports and their impact, Zidane is of the very finest vintage.

Honourable mentions:

Raymond Kopa

French football’s first megastar and Ballon d’Or winner Raymond Kopa would join Alfredo Di Stéfano et al at Real Madrid after impressing the powers that be in the 1956 European Cup final while representing Reims, since moving to Spain he’d go on to make 79 league appearances registering 24 goals from midfield.

Claude Makélélé

So good they named a position after him. In the era of Galácticos, Makélélé’s job was clear enough, but almost impossible: do some defending and hold it together while the others all raced forward. He established the role for the likes of fellow Frenchman N’golo Kanté to follow decades later.

Raphaël Varane

The perfect modern centre-back. Immense physically, intelligent and a great reader of the game, Varane was the cool and composed sidekick to ‘Captain Chaos’ Sergio Ramos. Together they formed a phenomenal partnership at the heart of the defence. Varane won 18 trophies in Spain, making him the most-decorated French import alongside Benzema.

Eric Abidal

Similar to Makélélé, Abidal was a crucial defensive-minded player in a team built to attack. With Dani Alves causing havoc down the right, Abidal was keeping it covered on the left. He won everything with Barcelona during the glorious Guardiola years. His serious liver issues cut short his playing time, but the gesture from Carles Puyol to give him the armband and allow him to lift the Champions League title in 2011 remains one of the most beautiful moments in sport.

Article produced by Matt Clark in partnership with La Liga Lowdown, your home for Spanish football in English with reporters based in Spain. Find them on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown