DOHA, Qatar -- Karim Benzema left the Al Messila hotel, the luxurious residence where the France team are staying, before 7 a.m. on Sunday morning. He took the 8:08 a.m. Qatar Airways flight to Madrid and was back in his house in the Spanish capital by 2 p.m. local time. That's how his 2022 World Cup ended: over before the competition even started.
Not all of his teammates got to say a proper goodbye, either: Benzema didn't get back to his room until late Saturday, following his scans at the Aspetar hospital in Doha, after everyone had gone to sleep, and he was gone when the squad woke up Sunday morning. Eduardo Camavinga, his teammate at Real Madrid, told the media that he'd been exchanging text messages with Benzema and that the striker was absolutely devastated. Wouldn't you be feeling the same?
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On Monday, when ESPN had a chat with the 2022 Ballon d'Or winner in Paris, he had a big smile on his face, saying that he felt good and was looking forward to playing this tournament with the aim of helping Les Bleus defend the World Cup title they won in Russia four years ago. Fast forward less than a week and he's out of the whole thing without playing a single minute. He had waited eight years to play another World Cup, after being part of the 2014 squad that made it to the quarterfinals and missing out on Russia. Benzema turns 35 next month, so this was likely to be his last shot. After disappointment in Doha, he'll be hoping it won't be.
The squad felt a bit KO'ed, and almost dizzied, by the news. After so many core players pulled out prior to the squad announcement, it was hard to accept that they were losing another key player.
Goalkeeper Mike Maignan and midfielders Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante were ruled out in recent weeks, only for defender Presnel Kimpembe, midfielder Christopher Nkunku and now Benzema to be sidelined in the past week alone. That's four starters (Pogba, Kante, Kimpembe, Benzema), a top backup keeper (Maignan) and a versatile forward who would be your first sub (Nkunku) if chasing, or controlling, the game. Coach Didier Deschamps decided not to replace Benzema and to stick with 25 players. The reasoning is that every player is on holiday with their families right now, most of them enjoying exotic destinations like Miami or Dubai and lacking the time to get ready physically for the rigors of a World Cup.
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Along with the psychological impact of these injuries, losses to the squad and Deschamps' preparations for the tournament, they've completely changed the dynamic. Playing with Olivier Giroud up front is very different than playing with Benzema as a No. 9: the latter loves the freedom of the role, playing creator as much as finisher, while Giroud is more of a traditional centre-forward, excellent with his back to goal and as a pivot. Les Bleus certainly know how to play with Giroud -- who was a big part of their winning team in 2018, even though he didn't score in Russia -- and the likes of Mbappe and Griezmann mesh well around him.
As for the AC Milan striker, Benzema's injury marks another remarkable twist in his incredible career. A few weeks ago, Deschamps was reluctant to call Giroud up for the World Cup. Now, he will start and should get every chance to fulfill his ultimate dream, which is to catch and overtake Thierry Henry as the top men's scorer in France national team history. Giroud is on 49 (in 114 caps, or 0.43 goals per game) while Henry has 51 (123 games, or 0.41 goal per game), so history could be made in Doha this winter.
Regardless of Giroud's performances, Benzema's absence means that Mbappe has to step up even more. If France want to do well, he has to take over, be the leader and deliver. This is the stage he wants, and has always wanted. And so, it's his chance to show the whole world that the prodigious kid from 2018, the only teenager (besides Pele) to score in a World Cup final, is now an established, world-class superstar who will make the difference in a tournament like this one. Big stages belong to big players, so let's see it, Kylian.
On Tuesday, France get a game with Australia to start the competition, just like they did in 2018. It could be a good omen, but equally, it be a trap. They will be aggressive and physical, looking to make the most of set pieces and not give France any space. It is a challenge to start with, especially after the Benzema drama.
Deschamps' message to the players has been to use the disappointment of these absentees to become stronger as a group, be more united and to tap into their fighting mentality. They owe that to the stars that helped get them to this World Cup, only to be left watching from home.