France came from behind to beat Spain 2-1 in the 2021 Nations League final, with one French player shining above all.
Most of the best players on the pitch were wearing Spanish red as Luis Enrique’s men dominated the final, with Sergio Busquets, Rodri and 17 year-old prodigy Gavi running the show from midfield. Spain even took the lead with a lovely goal from Mikel Oyarzabal (from a Busquets assist, naturally) but France came away with the win and trophy because of one man.
No, not the referee and his strict adherence to the nonsense offside rule’s clause dealing with deliberately playing the ball. And not Kylian Mbappé who scored the tournament winning strike, although the PSG forward definitely deserves some credit for finishing it so calmly even if he was offside.
The reason France walked away with the 2021 Nations League was because of their golden god in attack; Karim Benzema.
Playing in his 92nd match for his country, the Real Madrid forward scored his 33rd goal to draw France level almost instantly after Spain had taken the lead, completely robbing the Spaniards of any momentum and instead bringing the San Siro to its feet to supercharge the French.
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It was a miraculous goal, but more than the technical aspect of the strike is what it embodied. The sheer redemption of a player who, despite being his country’s most talented player, was cast out from the national side in 2016 after a scandal off the pitch involving a team-mate.
For Didier Deschamps to take such a principled stance against Benzema went a long way to creating the unified French side that reached the final of Euro 2016 and then won the 2018 World Cup. Was it possible that France were better without Benzema? It seemed so.
But indifferent form after that World Cup win, as well as Benzema’s own incredible performances for Real Madrid in the wake of Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure from the Santiago Bernabeu (he’s scored 97 times in 157 games since becoming the main man) and his consistently improved behaviour led to a recall prior to Euro 2020.
Benzema returned to the French set-up humbled, wearing No.19 and fitting in wherever he could do. However, it was soon apparent that Benzema was too good and had too much chemistry with Mbappé and Paul Pogba to be left on the bench. So he started.
A brace against Portugal was huge and an even better brace against Switzerland should have seen France through to the quarter-finals but they inexplicably let their lead slip and lost on penalties. It felt like perhaps Benzema’s return had also sent France back to the way they used to be with him in the side, a dysfunctional disappointment.
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Still, he persisted. And when the chips were down for France in the Nations League, trailing 2-0 to Belgium in the semi-final, it was Benzema who conjured a goal from nothing to give France hope. Hope they then turned into a 3-2 win.
Back to the final, and his wondergoal to make it 1-1 literally just 90 seconds after Spain had taken the lead. Mbappé fed him the ball on the corner of the box, a simple pass, and Benzema began advancing. He looked up but Cesar Azpilicueta had not stepped up to confront him, there was space for a shot, and so Karim Benzema shot. He curved a laser-guided missile off his boot into the top corner of the net. Unai Simon even got a hand to it but it was so perfectly placed, so sweetly struck, so bloody Benzema that nothing could be done.
It was a moment of heroism for Benzema, true heroism. The kind he has always craved with his country but never managed to deliver. This turned the tide of the game instantly after Spain had set themselves up to pass France to death and win the trophy. Suddenly Benzema had put France in the driver’s seat and did it so spectacularly that Mbappé’s own redemption from an awful Euro 2020 to score the tournament-winning goal mostly went overlooked.
Karim Benzema's game by numbers vs. Spain:
84% pass accuracy
4 chances created (most)
2 take-ons completed
2 tackles made
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) October 10, 2021
Benzema was awarded Man of the Match, and he absolutely was not the best-performing player on the pitch, but he was the best player on the pitch, and that absurd, overwhelming quality all came to the fore with his equaliser. His moment of magic. When he put his country on his back and carried them out of hell.
Even if it’s not enough to win him the Ballon d’Or, as the Madrid media will now begin campaigning for, it doesn’t really matter. Forget France Football’s golden ball, Karim Benzema’s brass balls to take that strike on and score it are far more important to the French national team. He’s already delivered them one trophy and, with the World Cup just over a year away, you best believe Benzema d’Or is going to be doing his best to make France the first nation to retain the World Cup since Brazil in 1962.
He can do it, he has the power.