In this exclusive interview sponsored by Adidas, super striker Karim Benzema talks about finally playing for France in the World Cup, his friendship with Zidane and his training under Mourinho.
After France's desperate showing at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, which he didn't partake in, Real Madrid's Karim Benzema is now part of a French team that could go all the way this time around, after strolling past Nigeria in the round of 16. Before France's massive quater-final match up tonight against Germany, we speak to the prolific striker in this Adidas-sponsored interview to talk about patriotism, the coaches that have inspired him, and holidaying in Ibiza...
You went to Euro 2008, but missed out on the World Cup in South Africa in 2010. Does that disappointment make you want to make up for lost time in Brazil?
Of course it does. The experience at Euro 2008 was not a good one for France at all. I started a couple of games but we went out early, in the group stages, and it was frustrating. We didn’t get going at all, and it reminds you that you need to start well in every tournament, or it can be over before you feel like you are settled in. And it was also very difficult to not make the cut to go to the South African World Cup. Getting back in there for Euro 2012 was very important to me, but once again we didn’t do as well as we would have liked as a side at that tournament. But every footballer has setbacks and I think these have made me stronger and more determined.
Have you come back a better player?
I think I did, after the 2010 setback. It concentrates the mind and it makes you more determined to prove yourself. Now I want to prove myself in a big tournament and take my chance, because you don’t know how many chances you will get to play on the very biggest stage. This is the World Cup, it is massive, our whole country will be watching.
How much of an honour is it to represent France?
It is the highest honour. I wear the shirt with real pride, always. And even when I was left out, I always wanted France to win, always supported my friends in the team and cheered for them. Now I want to use my abilities to really make a mark for France.
You’ve had a decent goalscoring run in a French shirt, despite the difficulties around tournaments…
Yes, since I made my debut in 2006 I have managed to make a good number of appearances, and score some goals, but it isn’t satisfying unless you are doing it in games that really count. I am very hungry to change that, it is my mission, and I think we can surprise people at this World Cup. We know we have the ability, we are a strong unit and there is a lot of ability running through this side.
France won the World Cup in 1998. What do you have to do to recapture the greatness of that side?
No two sides are ever exactly the same and you can’t just replicate a group of players. That team had Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Laurent Blanc, Frank Le Boeuf, Marcel Desailly, some outstanding players. We need to find our own way. But that team did one thing when it won the Euros and the World Cup, which is to prove that France can produce the best players and compete with the best. That is something that every young French player can take to heart, and they can be an inspiration to us.
Does your coach, Didier Deschamps, talk much about winning the World Cup? Does he use that as motivation?
No, that’s not something he talks about too much. We all know he has done it and we all respect him hugely as a player, but being a player and a coach are two different things. He happens to be good at both. Having said that, his experience at World Cups, and of winning the World Cup, that can’t harm us. He has been there and done that, so when he says something in a team talk, you know it is from experience, from having been there and done that himself. Hopefully when the pressure is on in this tournament he can use that to our advantage.
How much did Jose Mourinho help turn your game around?
Jose was a huge influence on me at Real Madrid. He helped give me back my confidence in many ways. He spoke to me like a father speaks to a son and told me to find a new Karim Benzema. He had a go at me at times, but that made me dig deeper than I ever have to prove myself. I detoxed, I lost weight, I worked myself extremely hard. Now it is paying off. I’ll always be grateful to Jose.
Deschamps has built a new look France around you. How much of a compliment is that to you?
I am very happy that the manager has put his faith in me, and in my ability to score goals. I have been doing well for Real Madrid and just playing my natural game, and with that comes confidence. It has boosted me and I want to pay him back. Now to do it for the national team is the next step.
How crazy was it scoring that scrambled goal against the Ukraine that helped you win the World Cup play-off?
It was just an insane moment. A World Cup play off is such a crazy game anyway, it is like the ultimate final in many ways. The prize is so huge, the chance to go to a World Cup, that to win one of those matches is like winning a major trophy or a league title. You just explode with joy to score a goal like that, even if it wasn’t the prettiest goal. It’s what it means that counts, so it is one of my most important strikes ever.
You like laying on assists as much as scoring…
Yes. From a very young age I’ve always loved both. A beautiful pass that puts an easy goal in front of someone is just as good as scoring a beautiful goal. I’m not an egoist, if I see someone in a better position than me, I will always pass the ball, and I get as much satisfaction from doing the right thing as I do from scoring a tough goal. A forward should be able to do both these things – in my opinion, if you’re not, you aren’t a complete striker.
You’re very close to Zinedine Zidane. How much of a positive influence has he been on you?
I owe so much to him. I can always talk to him at any time. I think he is the greatest player who ever lived, so his advice is invaluable. His door is always open to me and he is happy to talk any time. He has given me so many tips and so much advice. If I success in Brazil, a lot of it will be down to Zinedine.
How do you relax outside of football?
I just like to take it easy these days, recharge my batteries. Football takes a lot out of you, so I like to go on holiday and have some sun. I’ve been to Ibiza, Mauritius, places like that. I try to disconnect my mind, but to be honest I am always thinking about football. It’s something that is always there for me. Maybe when I retire I’ll be able to finally forget it for ten minutes!
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