Due to an ongoing blackmail investigation regarding a sex tape, the French Football Federation chose to suspend striker Karim Benzema from the national team on Thursday. There is no timetable on the suspension, but FFF president Noel Le Graet has said that until the case turns in Benzema’s favor, he will not be available for selection.
The whole situation is incredibly sticky. The gist of it is that Benzema has been placed under formal investigation by a French judge over “an alleged bid to blackmail France team-mate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex video.” With Benzema being placed under judicial supervision, he is not allowed to have any contact with Valbuena; meaning him and Valbuena cannot be called up to the French national team at the same time.
When athletes get into trouble with the law, we often times rush into assuming their guilty. In this case, it’s important to remember that Benzema is simply under investigation, he has not been convicted. Benzema has denied any wrongdoing in the situation and his club, Real Madrid, continue to back the player. Therefore the French national team is under no obligation to suspend Benzema, they simply have to choose either Benzema or Valbuena whenever they have a match for the time being.
Benzema is France’s most high-profile striker, and he plays for one of the highest profile teams in the world. Many people believe if France were to make a run at the 2016 European Championships in France, it would be behind the goals of Benzema. By suspending Benzema, the FFF is essentially picking Valbuena, an above average midfielder, over their star striker. Why would they do that?
The answer is simple. Suspending Benzema benefits France not just in the long run, but immediately.
Similar to England, the French team has been a mess since the 2006 World Cup. The past 10 years have mostly been transitional, filled with high expectations and disastrous results. During that time, they began fading out some of their older players while trying out some younger guys and hoping they caught on while they waited for the next generation to come through the ranks.
Now it’s 2016 and just like England, the next generation is here. Even better for France, their young generation is loaded with talent at the striker position, meaning not only is Benzema expendable but he probably wasn’t in their future plans to begin with.
The FFF’s decision to suspend Benzema paves the road for France to move away from Benzema permanently. If Benzema was still with the team, his stature and profile would demand he be selected for the team. If he isn’t selected and France were to lose, the second guessing of manager Didier Deschamps would never end.
When speaking about the controversy, former French goalkeeper Bernard Lama said that while the case was terrible for the players and the national team, he didn’t believe it would affect France’s chances at Euro 2016.
France likely wants to move on from the Karim Benzema era. He’s been highly overrated with the national team. In 77 international appearances, Benzema only has 27 goals. Those numbers are remarkably similar to USMNT striker Jozy Altidore (Altidore has 31 goals in 88 games). In Benzema’s eight years with the national team, 2014 is the only year in which he scored more than 14 goals.
France now have a wonderful chance to move on from the 27-year-old and turn the team over to their younger and dynamic players. Without Benzema, France can play a 4-3-3 with a midfield three with Yohan Cabaye, Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi. Up top they can field any of Antoine Griezmann, Alexandre Lecazette, Anthony Martial, Kingsley Koman and Hatem ben Arfa. Those are forwards who can all interchange with each other moving out wide on the wings or playing in the middle.
That’s a dynamic and scary front six, and if they need an out-and-out striker late in the game, they still have Olivier Giroud to come off the bench.
There is another aspect to this story that’s rather curious, the timing. The latest development in this story happened almost a month ago in November. Nothing in the case has changed so why suspend Benzema now and not a month ago, especially since France doesn’t have any upcoming games?
By coming down with the suspension now, the FFF has bought themselves the flexibility of time. France’s next game isn’t until their friendly against the Netherlands in March. That gives the courts plenty of time to conduct their investigation and come up with a decision before Benzema would even have to miss a game.
If there is no decision made by March France now have the freedom to develop their lineup. Most of the aforementioned strikers are young and untested on the international stage.
Anthony Martial is only 20 years old. He made his France debut just this past August. He’s since amassed six appearances and has looked fantastic in each of his appearances. When France reconvene in March, Dechamps can give his young attackers experience not just at the international level, but experience playing together without having the pressure of forcing his ‘star’ onto the team.
France have finally done what everyone has been calling for them to do. But make no mistake, if the FFF didn’t stand to benefit from Benzema’s suspension, it’s unlikely they would have done it.