Very few careers, in both football and life in general, are linear. There are lateral moves, there are plateaus, there are peaks and there are valleys — the time horizon on each of those stages is anyone’s guess. A career is unique to each individual. As football fans, it’s easy to project based on historical evidence. Many times the same assumption on young players is thrown into the following category: as a teenager they show great promise and flashes of brilliance, thus promoting expectations that they will improve each year, reaching peak performance in their mid-20’s, before falling off in their 30’s. If a 21-year-old is playing well, then it is assumed in 3-4 years time, that they will be at their best. Conclusions are sought early, but definitive answers on a players career cannot be made until they have hung up their boots.
For Real Madrid, a club that is now heavily focused on investing in the best young players in the world, their current captain and now Ballon d’Or winner, Karim Benzema, has matured into the ultimate example of young player development. Karim did not win the Ballon d’Or at 25, nor at 29, nor even at 32 — the Frenchman reached the zenith at just a few months short of 35.
He arrived at the club a doughy-faced 21-year-old from a rough neighborhood outside Lyon, France where immigrant families like his own often saw their children go down the wrong path. Benzema’s loyalty to his friends and his roots in a difficult neighborhood could spell trouble, reportedly even warning off clubs from pursuing him during his early career. Put bluntly, this was a supremely talented player but not a kid that was thought to be a future captain.
He was introverted and failed to lock down a starting position in his first season over Gonzalo Higuain, a player of the same age and a player thought to be at a similar developmental stage. Flash forward 13 years, Higuain has had tremendous career but is now hanging up his boots at 34-years-old while playing the last few seasons in MLS for Inter Miami. On the opposite end, Karim Benzema just picked up football’s ultimate award after carrying the greatest football club in the world to a La Liga and Champions League double. Would that have been projected after the 2009-2010 season?
Karim Benzema’s maturation goes beyond the football pitch. Maybe those who saw his talent early always projected he had the ability to be one of the best, but few projected his growth at the human level. His mentor, his “older brother” as Karim himself has dubbed Zidane, was one to see the potential as a person. Zidane helped Karim persevere and encouraged him to be the best. It soon became a case of the self-fulfilling prophecy. “Treat a person not as they are, but as their potential” — Zidane did that. He gave that final impetus which helped Karim thrive.
That final impetus, particularly at the psychological level, was the most surprising factor of Karim Benzema evolution over the last few years. That transformation into a leader in every facet of the word. That reserved French kid with Algerian roots was now a symbol of Madridismo. As captain, Benzema understands his position, he understands the weight of the institution that he represents and he does not take it for granted. That recognition of his responsibility is seen in small gestures. Even a detail like the ceremonial kick off. A few weeks ago, Amancio - the now honorary president of Real Madrid — stepped out on to the pitch to perform the prematch kick, and Karim guided Amancio through the process. He was protective and made the former legend feel back at home with a supportive arm around the shoulder or hand to direct.
Again, this transformation into both an on-field and off-field leader was never really expected — especially after early assessments were made of his personality during the first few seasons. The “cat” as Mourinho famously labeled him, is now more ferocious than a lion. He puts players under his wing, he pushes himself and others, and now a soon to be 35-year-old, with over a decade of playing at the most demanding club in the world, is setting the standard for success. Karim Benzema is the ultimate goal in young player development. From a supremely talented 21-year-old to a Ballon d’Or winning captain at 35-years-old who symbolizes and respects the traditions of the club he represents. It was not a linear path, the road to the pinnacle of football took longer than expected, but the journey has made the reward all the more fruitful. Karim Benzema is a legend of the club and an example of what career development at Real Madrid can foster.