Take Karim Benzema out of the Real Madrid side last season and it is entirely uncontroversial to suggest they would not have won La Liga or the Champions League; not without his 44 goals in 46 games. Remove him from the France team and there is a case to say their chances of winning the World Cup are greater.
It is an argument based on history rather than individual quality, admittedly: French history, in particular. The peculiarity of their two triumphant campaigns is that neither contained a goal from the main No 9. Benzema scored three goals in 2014 and France exited in the quarter-finals. Stephane Guivarc’h failed to score in 1998 – indeed he ended his international career with a lone goal – and France won the World Cup. Olivier Giroud did not even muster a shot on target in 2018, yet he was the selfless foil as Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe scored four times apiece. Glory went to France.
None of which necessarily makes possessing a non-scoring striker a failsafe formula, but it may mean Benzema’s absence. does not spell a death sentence to France’s defense of their crown. Didier Deschamps sounded stoical. “Despite this new blow, I have every confidence in my squad,” the France coach said. “We are going to do everything to meet the immense challenge that awaits us.”
In part, that reflects the potency of Mbappe and Griezmann; each was a scorer in the last final. It also highlights the curious cause of Giroud, who spent much of Benzema’s five-year international exile as France’s first-choice striker when he did not always have the same status at Arsenal and then at Chelsea. The 36-year-old could become France’s record scorer in Qatar, although his past suggests not: only five of his 49 international goals have come in major tournaments.
That the record passed from Just Fontaine to Michel Platini to Thierry Henry shows that it has tended to be the domain of the greats. Giroud has rarely been bracketed in that category – he would be an incongruous sight at the summit when the top 10 also includes Zinedine Zidane, Jean-Pierre Papin, Griezmann and Mbappe – who, given his youth, would surely overhaul him before his 30th birthday. .
And yet Giroud has remained the great constant of Deschamps’ long reign, winning a century of caps in his tenure alone, scoring 48 of his 49 France goals for the man who captained a team where Guivarc’h was preferred to the flashier talents of Henry and David Trezeguet. Deschamps has reasons to appreciate strikers who can provide much else but not goals.
France started the 2018 World Cup with Giroud on the bench and quickly concluded they needed a focal point to their attack. Now, such is the wealth of talent at their disposal, there could have been a more fashionable alternative to him again. Except that Christopher Nkunku, scorer of 52 goals in the last 15 months for RB Leipzig, was injured even before Benzema was ruled out. There is still Ousmane Dembele, one of the most expensive footballers in history, but he only has four goals in international football. Dembele feels a case of unfulfilled potential whereas Giroud has exceeded his – at 23, the age Mbappe is now and at which Dembele reached in his third season at Barcelona, he was still a Ligue 2 player.
Now he is in the autumn of his career and France may sense an auspicious parallel. Germany won the 2014 World Cup with a 36-year-old target man, who had overhauled more garlanded talents to become their record scorer. That said, Miroslav Klose is also the World Cup’s record scorer and has proven far more prolific on this stage than Giroud has.
A common denominator between Joachim Low’s German champions and the two victorious French sides is that they were the best all-round side in the tournament, not the one with the finest centre-forward. In 1998, as in 2018, France were excellent in defense and midfield and possessed other attacking weapons in deeper or wider positions.
Now Deschamps has been stripped of his premier midfielders, with Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante also injured. One thought was that, while France have scarcely been prolific of late and only scored five goals in six Nations League games, they might compensate for deficiencies elsewhere with their three musketeers of Benzema, Mbappe and Griezmann.
But three have become two. Benzema, a first-time winner at 34 and a player who spent his peak years sacrificing himself so Cristiano Ronaldo could score more goals, was always an unlikely holder of the Ballon d’Or. Now, for the first time since England’s failure to qualify meant Kevin Keegan spent the summer of 1978 thousands of miles from the action in Argentina, the reigning Ballon d’Or winner will not play in the World Cup. And Giroud, the ultimate team man who is rarely recognized by individual awards, may have to make up for the absence of the premier footballer of 2022.