Karim Benzema Finally Follows in Idol Ronaldo's Real Madrid Footsteps

Andy BrassellFeatured ColumnistFebruary 10, 2014

Associated Press

The strike that took Karim Benzema to the magical 104-goal mark was an appropriate one to do so.

It was a rapid move, begun by the Frenchman himself and finished with precision after Jese Rodriguez found him again on the edge of the penalty area. It was, in short, a typical Benzema goal.

Wrapping up Real Madrid’s 4-2 win over Villarreal on Saturday, it was a milestone because it took Benzema to the same number of goals for the Bernabeu club as Brazil’s 2002 World Cup-winning centre-forward Ronaldo managed.

As well as placing him in the company of true greatness, it is special on a personal level for the 26-year-old, who has unashamedly based much of his game around the former Barcelona, Inter and Milan legend’s style.

"To catch up such a player is astonishing—there’s nothing else to say," he told reporters after Saturday’s match, as reported by RTL.fr (in French). "For me, he’s the best player in the history of football [along] with Zizou [Zinedine Zidane]. I’m very proud."

This piece of Spanish television footage from October 2009 (video from Daily Motion, in Spanish and French) tells us how deeply his admiration for his predecessor runs.

"I came to play here because he played here," a shy-looking Benzema tells a television news crew who surprised him, shortly after his arrival in the Spanish capital, by bringing the Brazilian to the Bernabeu to meet him.

Later in the piece, Ronaldo himself talks about the parallels between the pair.

Friends tell me that we’re doing a lot of similar things, like that we shoot with both feet. For a forward, it’s an extra option. If you can shoot with both feet, the defenders don’t know where it’s going.

For a long time, it seemed unlikely that Benzema would be mentioned in the same breath as Ronaldo after the Frenchman's move to the Spanish capital. He struggled to adapt initially, perhaps overshadowed by the simultaneous arrivals of Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka but also hamstrung by his own greenness.

If Benzema was a prodigious talent on the field, he had plenty to learn off it. He struggled to learn Spanish and to integrate into a cosmopolitan dressing-room. It was unsurprising because he had lived in the family home in Bron, on the outskirts of Lyon, while making his name at his hometown club.

He progressed under Jose Mourinho after some typical tough love from the Portuguese coach, who suggested that he needed to start training at midday for his young forward to be awake for it (report by Le Monde, in French).

Benzema remarked in a 2011 interview with So Foot that all he remembered Mourinho saying to him in training at first was repeatedly telling him in French to "bouge ton cul" ("move your a--e").

Benzema’s kinship with Ronaldo goes beyond their predatory instincts. They are both very intuitive forwards, with Benzema’s capacity to link play around the penalty area—and thus help to get the best of Cristiano Ronaldo—perhaps saving him when it looked like he might be moved on from the Bernabeu.

He is still rebuilding his reputation at home in France. He was recently cleared of accusations of soliciting an under-age prostitute, along with his international teammate Franck Ribery—as per ESPN FC—but his uneasy relationship with Les Bleus’ fans goes beyond that or even his 14-month goal drought that recently ended.

Many see him as truculent and sulky. His image certainly needs work.

This timely link with Ronaldo helps to give Benzema legitimacy. "I even watch videos of him before certain matches," Benzema said after the Villarreal match. "He still inspires me."

Ronaldo was never able, of course, to deliver the 10th European champions’ title to the Bernabeu. It was a rare honour that escaped him in an illustrious career. Having been through so many ups and downs, Benzema now has the chance to go one better than his hero.