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Real Madrid vs Bayern Munich: A Tale of Two Strikers

Real Madrid vs Bayern Munich will be decided by two strikers who have reached here through strikingly different paths

Editor's Pick 18 Apr 2017, 18:44 IST

The Chosen One

“We can’t start training at 10 am, because Benzema is still asleep” – Jose Mourinho, then of Real Madrid.

“We have the feeling that Karim could do rather more” – Kaka, then of Real Madrid. 

Lazy, stubborn and lackadaisical, everyone loves to hate Karim Benzema. Coaches, teammates and fans, it doesn’t matter – every time people see him ambling around the Bernabeu wearing that bemusing expression of a lost cat that’s too lazy to find his way back home, something happens deep within them. A rumbling hatred rises up from deep within, a “what the hell is this guy doing at Madrid?”  feeling that manifests itself on social media as different iterations of “I hate you Benzema”, “what a lucky b****** you are, Benzema” and a number of words that no family-friendly publication would even think of putting on its pages, as fans ‘voting’ that the one player they want out of Real Madrid is Benzema (as has been seen a number of times in the major Madrid publications, Marca and AS), as Marca going with the headline Benzena(na, of course, being shorthand for nada.... nothing) and as boos and catcalls that emanate from every corner of the Bernabeu every time he snatches at yet another presentable opportunity to score. 

He wears no. 9 for Real Madrid and has been at the biggest club in the world for nigh on 8 years, but all that is ascribed to that fantastical phenomenon that everyone wishes they had, luck. 

Luck, and the age-old, all-encompassing power of having the undying support of the man at the top.

You see, far more than being an intelligent footballing signing, Karim Benzema was Florentino Perez’s pet signing. His galactico. The Cristiano Ronaldo deal had been confirmed during the previous President’s tenure and so it had been important that Perez did something of his own. Which is why he had gone, personally, to the 21-year-olds house to convince him that it was in his best interests to reject the advances of suitors from Manchester, London, Munich, and Turin. He had gone to convince the young man who was Europe’s next Big Thing to accept his invitation, his personal invitation, and come to Madrid. And he paid Lyon 35 million for him, a fee that would rise to 41 million due to those myriad incentives that dominate the contracts of many a promising youngster. 

And whenever he failed on the field, Perez simply refused to accept it. He was his golden boy – and as such has been the subject of political maneuvering ever since his arrival. Jose Mourinho, in the midst of that tumultuous reign at Madrid and whilst lamenting about Benzema’s work ethic, or lack thereof, once moaned “Karim's playing because I have got nothing else”.  That had not been a reflection of Benzema’s attitude, or undoubted skill, but of the fact that Mourinho believed that Perez’ love for his protege had blinded him so much that the President just wouldn’t sign any quality back-ups/replacements. 

It was Benzema or nothing. 

Back home in France, he could do no right either. He still hung out with his old pals, inviting condescending remarks of how he needed to rid himself of “bad company”. He grew a beard. He never smiled. He never sang the national anthem when he wore the famous colours of Les Bleus. 

Zinedine Zidane never sang it either, but he’d scored two goals in a World Cup Final... he’d earned that right. As many commented, “Why doesn’t Karim smile? Why does he a grow a beard? Have you ever seen Zidane with a beard? Has he Zidane, always with a smile on his face... what a lad he is”. That comparison has killed his international career just as much as the shenanigans with Mathieu Valbuena.

After all, just like Zizou, Karim Benzema was Kabyle, not authentically French, never authentically French – and because he refused to comply with the standards that were “expected of him” like Zidane had done so brilliantly well, he was never going to be accepted.

Read, Also – Zinedine Zidane is the hero Madrid need.. and the one they deserve

Role Model? Pshaw! Not that lucky b******!

The Upstart

Krzysztof Lewandowski named his son Robert so that when he grew up, he could move abroad – as any Polish professional footballer must in order to grow - easily. No, seriously... such was Krzysztof (a national judo champion) and his wife Iwona (a national-level volleyball player)’s absolute faith in destiny. 

The coaches at Legia Warsaw, though, didn’t share that belief and at 18, two years after his father had passed away, Robert was told that he just didn’t have what it takes to be a professional footballer. He couldn’t quite believe it... so he dropped down, going into the third division to play for Znicz Pruszków before working his way back to the top division with Lech Poznan where he ended up being top-scorer of the Ekstraklasa

At 21, he moved to Borussia Dortmund. No club president came to visit him at his home. No one paraded him as the signing that would change the fortunes of the club. He went for a mere 4.5 million; just another one of the thousands of transfers that occur between football clubs every summer. 

When he joined the only impressive thing about him was his physique – something that earned him the imaginative nickname “the Body” from Nuri Sahin, and he could little right on the pitch. At one point it got so bad that he was called ‘Chancetod’ – the death of Chances. So he buckled down. Just as he had done back home in Poland when his coaches had said he was too thin, too fragile to play professionally. He learned German to integrate better with his Dortmund. He practiced and practiced until he perfected the art of being the sharp end of Juergen Klopp’s unrelenting, gegen-pressing, machine. He scored, and scored, and kept on scoring.

When Bayern Munich came a-calling, they weren’t after someone with the ‘potential’ to be the best, they were after the best. And they got him. That’s a big part of why there’s no jealousy, no complaints when it comes to Robert Lewandowski. There was no luck here, no paternal hand on the shoulder from men in power, no talented kid throwing toys out of his pram when things didn’t go his way. He had worked his ass off to get to the very top – he had overcome rejection, he had worked on his physical attributes, he was the epitome of the first-man-in last-man-out trope that coaches love and fans adore and there was, and is, not even a sniff of controversy about him. He was a worker, a common lad, who had ensured he got to his date with destiny thanks to the good ole fashioned values of hard work, discipline, and sacrifice. 

He deserved to be there. 

And his goal celebration, and we see it quite often these days, endears him even further to the common man. 

"My father was not there to see my first professional game and when I score an important goal I dedicate it to him," Lewandowski said. "In those moments, I know that he is watching and I hope that he is proud of me."

His personal life was (is) near-picture perfect. When the Germans tried to make him and Anna Lewandowska the Beckhams of their part of the world, it just didn't happen. They didn’t party, they didn’t do fashion photo shoots – for Robert there’s football and for Anna, there’s Karate (bronze medal winner at the 2009 Karate World Cup)

As for his home nation? Ah, for the Poles, he is the face of their nation

If someone created a fictional footballer to serve as a socially accepted role-model, they couldn’t do better than merely copying Robert Lewandowski’s life.  

The Destiny

...You are what your deep driving desire is;
As your deep driving desire is, so is your will; 
As your will is so is your deed; 
As your deed is so is your destiny

- The Upanishads

Fate, destiny, call it what you will – but neither Benzema nor Lewandowski are here, at the cusp of yet another Champions League semifinal, by accident. For all those who hate Benzema, Lewandowski represents his opposite – the ideal footballer, the footballer that Karim Benzema could have been, in fact, should be. 

But are we not being a touch too harsh on Karim? Yes, he got lucky when Perez identified him as his galactico. Yes, he is lucky to have a Club President whose ego rides on his performances. But is he?

There is no such thing as mere luck. Destiny doesn't just happen.

Like the ancient Indian texts, the Upanishads, so lucidly point out, destiny is merely a summation of various related phenomena– the presence of a deep driving desire, the will to act on that desire, and the deeds that manifest said will. You don’t just become the 8th greatest goalscorer of a club as illustrious as Real Madrid by accident. You don’t score 51 goals in UEFA competitions (no active player, bar those two have scored more) by being ‘lucky’. 

Today, two polar opposites will meet. The Chosen One who was conferred with the favour of aristocracy early on meets the Upstart who refused to bow down and accept his place.  

And yet, for all these oh-so-evident differences, they are strikingly similar – both are brilliant poachers (259 goals vs. 286 in favour of the ball), both play well as the lone striker (no one in world football is better than Lewandowski with his back to goal. No one), both combine superbly with the vaunted teammates around them (Benzema’s on-field connection with Ronaldo borders on the telepathic) , and both chime in with goals just when you most need them to. 

Today, destiny, fate, and luck have nothing to do with it. Karim Benzema and Robert Lewandowski both deserve to be here – and tonight, they will decide the destiny of their teams. 

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