The Vogue Man Arabia production team is sitting in the quaint Spanish restaurant of Villa Rosa in central Madrid. Nearby, flamenco dancers are practicing their moves for the shoot, which is now running nearly two hours behind schedule. Suddenly, cover star Karim Benzema boulders through the doors, charmingly apologetic, explaining his training session with Real Madrid – whose grounds are 40 minutes away – overran. The team now has just three hours to shoot the entire story – luckily, Benzema thrives under pressure.
With his hair cropped short and his beard impeccable, Benzema leaves the grooming team somewhat underutilized. The styling team also has an easy ride with the athletic Benzema – he stands at 1.85m – more than cooperative, embracing the bold FW19 looks. “I feel like fashion is a way to express myself,” says the sportsman, who happily dons head-to-toe leather and animal print while laughing and posing with the dancers.
At 31, Benzema should be nearing the end of his prime as a footballer – the average retirement age is 35. Yet, with teammate Cristiano Ronaldo leaving Real Madrid for Juventus, Benzema’s game time has increased, and he’s paid back head coach Zinedine Zidane with (at the time of writing) five goals in six games. Make no mistake about it – this footballer is still very much at the top of his game.
Benzema, who has won a boatload of team trophies, recently became the seventh player to score 200 goals for Real Madrid, has the 10th most goals scored for the French national team, and is the fourth player to reach 60 goals in the Champions League. With his numerous accolades and as the star striker in one of the world’s top football clubs, Benzema could be forgiven for possessing the stereotypical sportsman bravado, but he is refreshingly down-to-earth, with the indiscretions of his past far behind him.
A sportsman and scandal often go hand in hand. The combination of a lot of money at a young age and the adoration of thousands can often lead to questionable decision-making. Back-page headlines make their way to the front. However, the key personality marker comes by what happens next. It’s what they learn and how they grow from it that determines them. Benzema, who is a father of two – five-year-old Mélia and two-year-old Ibrahim – is definitely more grounded.
Born in Lyon to French nationals of Algerian descent, he cites his family and his Islamic faith as keeping him strong, even in the face of adversity. “My family inspires me. The values and morals my parents gave me helped me stay the same person,” he explains. “My faith also helps me to be focused every day. It brings me benefits and it’s my strength for me, my family, as well as for my work – for literally everything.”
While two of his three brothers are also footballers – Gressy plays in the French sixth division with Vaulx-en-Velin, and Sabri plays for the youth academy in Bron – he cites modern greats, including Brazilian striker Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, as his inspiration for getting into the game. “It’s because of him that I fell in love with football. He has all the qualities that a player dreams to have,” Benzema says. “He inspired me to challenge myself.”
Benzema’s earliest memory of kicking a ball was as an energetic four-year-old. Chasing the ball and kicking it as hard as he could gave him a “sensation of happiness and excitement.” By the time he was 15, Benzema realized he could turn his hobby into a lucrative career. In the 2004-05 season, he signed with Olympique Lyonnais. Playing in the reserve team, he scored a team-high of 10 goals, which saw them finish second in its group. Football offered an escape for the player affectionately nicknamed Coco (“it doesn’t really mean anything”) by his teammates. “I believe football saved me,” he says. “It was helping me to empty my mind and connect with myself. It helped me reach my objectives and gave me an incredible ambition to succeed. It helped me understand that you have to work extremely hard and that you always have to put more effort into training and discipline. It taught me the notion of sacrifice.”
His hard work certainly paid off when he was transferred to Real Madrid for €35 million (€41 million based on incentives) in July 2009. He was just 22. “Everything happened very fast,” he explains about the sudden fame and fortune. “You don’t really realize the change. Mostly, it happens in the way people look at you and how they tend to treat you. I don’t think my personality ever changed – I’m the same person when I play and in my personal life.” He continues, “I’m famous but in the end, I am a person like you and everyone. If you stay focused on what is important, there shouldn’t be any reason to let yourself think that you are more special than anyone.”
Being a father has helped bring perspective into Benzema’s life, where being a successful athlete can lead to unsavory temptations. “My children are my biggest source of happiness,” he says proudly. “When I see that they admire their dad and are proud of me, I never want to disappoint them. I want to be their number one example.”
Their education is based on the same principles he was brought up with, with religion being an important pillar. “I am always guided by my faith and my values,” he explains, insisting he wants his children to grow up knowing their heritage. “It’s important to me to not forget where I came from, as the simplest things in life are the most important. The foundations of a building will help it stand straight. I want to inculcate this heritage to my children. I hope that it will always be a part of them and that when in doubt, they can refer to these values and their faith.”
While Benzema sees his life after football entailing more time spent with his children and family, a love of watches perhaps offers a chance for a hobby to turn into a career. “I am into watches. It’s become something of a passion,” he shares. “I’ve learned a lot about it over the past years. I am a big fan of fine watchmaking. It fascinates me to see and understand the different mechanisms, the movements, and the designs.” Cue a bevy of luxury watchmakers no doubt approaching Benzema for ambassadorial duties.
As the rapid shoot comes to an end, Benzema’s energy and upbeat charisma are not defeated. “I love and enjoy life,” he says with the kind of million-dollar smile that helped keep the shoot team motivated throughout. “You always have to respect and be grateful for the things life gives you. Never take anything for granted. Without trying, you can never achieve anything. Even when you fail, you will always be stronger than if you hadn’t tried. Living your life on a ‘What if…’ is never going to give you the strength to persevere. Never give up on anything you know you can achieve because only you know what you are capable of.”
Originally published in the fall/winter 2019 issue of Vogue Man Arabia