To Ban or Not to Ban: The Murky Moral Ground Behind France's Top Striker

December 26, 2017

            The French national team is loaded with talent. Their current position of 8 in the FIFA world rankings and 11/2 betting odds to win the World Cup prove Les Bleus are a side capable of winning the 2018 tournament in Russia. Conversely, being held scoreless in their defeat in the 2016 Euro final and failing to breakdown Luxembourg in a recent 0-0 World Cup qualifier stalemate suggests France needs extra firepower to grab some goals at vital times.

            Oh, if only they had one of the game’s most complete strikers plying his trade at one of the world's best clubs to call upon to supplement the squad with some of the goals they've been lacking in big moments. Of course that Frenchman exists, by the name of Karim Benzema, but France Football Federation president Noel Le Graet and manager Didier Deschamps look set to stick to their guns and prolong Benzema's exile from the team, which began in December 2015, through the 2018 World Cup due to his role in an attempt to extort money from teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape.

            The sex tape is old news, but Benzema has found himself in the headlines repeatedly this fall. The striker recently extended his contract with Real Madrid until 2021 in a deal that includes a comical €1 Billion release clause, temporarily putting to rest the perpetual rumors of a transfer to PSG or Arsenal. Benzema was conspicuously absent from the Madrid side that fell 1-0 at home to Real Betis in La Liga in late September due to injury. Despite the return of Cristiano Ronaldo from his five match suspension, Madrid's streak of scoring in 73 consecutive fixtures came to an unceremonious end that day. The astonishing streak equaled the second longest of any club, tied with Pele's Santos FC side of the early 1960s, and trails only a 96 match streak by River Plate in the 1930s. For the majority of the run, it was Benzema spearheading the attack with Bale and Ronaldo on either shoulder, creating the feared and fabled BBC attacking triumvirate.

These circumstances have caused players, fans, pundits and coaches alike to reexamine the necessity and practicality of banning one of the world's best footballers from the team.

            While Benzema has been busy over the past two years making history by helping Madrid become the first club to win consecutive Champions League titles, contributing heavily to the second longest scoring streak by any club ever and committing his long-term future to the best side in the world, the French national team have stumbled in some big moments, despite being very impressive otherwise. These circumstances have caused players, fans, pundits and coaches alike to reexamine the necessity and practicality of banning one of the world's best footballers from the team.

            In late 2015 Benzema allegedly approached French teammate Mathieu Valbuena during practice and informed him that one of his acquaintances possessed a sex tape involving Valbuena and a woman who was not his wife. Later in the year, a wiretap caught Benzema saying, "Don't worry, he has no choice, I'll make him understand. He'll pay." The story became a bit murkier over the next two years as Benzema accused Valbuena of making up lies and "driving him mad" and Valbuena stated that he would be willing to play with Benzema for France again, though neither of the two have featured for France since. Valbuena surprisingly never seemed all that upset about the situation, perhaps having put forth a good performance in bed that fateful night. The case has bounced around the French court system, but Benzema looks set to eventually be cleared of criminal charges. His strategy to deflect responsibility being one we have all used - blaming your crazy friends. Apparently that method works in the French judicial system and not just when trying to convince your mom the weed she found wasn’t yours.

            Valbuena will be 33 during the World Cup and would likely not be selected to the France team for the tournament regardless of whether or not the scandal had occurred. Benzema's omission from the team would have far bigger consequences, consequences that could culminate in missing out on winning the nation's second World Cup.

            France are likely to deploy a 4-2-3-1 formation in Russia and conventional wisdom says you won't win a World Cup with Olivier Giroud leading the line or when you can't beat Luxembourg at home. Inserting backup Alex Lacazette, with 3 international goals to his name, does not instill much more confidence and Kylian Mbappé is likely still too young to shoulder such a burden when he will only be 19 next summer. Of course, with players like Griezmann, Dembele, Pogba and Mbappé in the squad, France has enough firepower to overcome any team in the world. Still, against a top side that is well drilled defensively, having a player in his prime with the quality and experience of Benzema to call upon when Les Bleus need a goal could prove to be invaluable.

            At first glance, it would appear that France's decision to ban Benzema was a decision to be applauded from an ethical standpoint and one they had little choice but to make. Before too much praise is bestowed to the French football brass for being a beacon of morality, it is important to note that they have looked the other way for numerous other Benzema controversies due to his massive talent. In many ways, Benzema's life resembles that of the notorious Brazilian legend Adriano. Both are prodigiously talented strikers that rose to the top of world football despite enduring rough upbringings and struggled to free themselves from the influence of their childhood friends. While Adriano succumbed to the pressure and lost the ability to play at the top-level, Benzema has somehow managed to keep his head above water, if only just barely.

Suddenly, France's platform for suspending Benzema for moral or legal purposes becomes less sturdy. Given all the transgressions they allowed from him in the past, it seemed plausible that France would look the other way once more.

            Benzema has lived a charmed life as it's a miracle his numerous run-ins with the law haven't caused him more trouble than a confusing ban from his national team. He has been charged multiple times for reckless driving and driving without a license. Worse, he solicited an underage prostitute in 2008, but was able to prove to the court he was not aware of the girl's age. Most shockingly, in 2013 Benzema was linked to the largest cocaine transportation operation in French history, as the two prime suspects accused of financing the operation both had close ties to the Madrid striker. In the midst of all that, he had a turbulent relationship with Rihanna, though I suppose that's not illegal, just legendary.

            Suddenly, France's platform for suspending Benzema for moral or legal purposes becomes less sturdy. Given all the transgressions they allowed from him in the past, it seemed plausible that France would look the other way once more. The situation became even more bizarre in February when Le Great said, “He’s up for selection, he’s not suspended. If Didier wants to pick him, he can do when he wants. He has total control."

            This statement prompted Benzema to demand a meeting with Deschamps to get an explanation for his continued omission from the team, though one has yet to occur. The coach proceeded to tell the media. "I have a squad in which there is harmony. I have faith in the players, who have paid me back on the pitch... I'm the only one who decides, and I take decisions based on sporting reasons." Later, the coach hinted at more of the status quo by saying the continuous questions from the media about Benzema are boring him.

            Unfortunately for Deschamps, like most of the circumstances involving Benzema and the France team, that explanation makes little sense. If France is not choosing to exile Benzema for moral reasons, there is hardly a case for doing so for sporting reasons. Benzema is France's highest scorer at club level, plays for the best club in the world and is almost universally considered to be the most potent option to lead the line in Russia next summer. He is known as a complete striker. The 6'4" Giroud is presently first-choice, but at 6'2" Benzema offers much of the same height and physicality needed to hold up play and bring Griezmann, France's featured player, into the game and combines this with superior pace and dribbling ability. And ultimately, when given a chance to finish, there are few better technicians in front of goal.

            If this were a mediocre France side, Benzema's omission would be more understandable. However, with a golden generation of talent in its ranks,  the stakes couldn't be higher as France has a genuine chance to repeat the heroics of twenty years prior and win its second World Cup. It has become one of the biggest selection headaches for a manager in recent memory. Locker room harmony is an extremely important topic for the French, as a mutiny amongst the players during a shambolic 2010 World Cup showing lead to a government inquiry. Notwithstanding the France's acute desire for team unity, if Deschamps doesn't hedge his bets by at least selecting Benzema for a substitute role, continues to omit an available Benzema for "sporting reasons" and France falls short in attack in Russia, it is a decision that could surely cost him his job and many will say cost his country a World Cup trophy.

 

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