BRASILIA (Reuters) - When France striker Karim Benzema was hauled off in the 83rd minute of their 1-0 World Cup qualifying defeat at home to Spain in March last year he was sent packing with a cacophony of boos and whistles.
The fans’ angry reaction at the Stade de France to yet another limp performance from the Real Madrid forward seemed even harsher eight minutes later when they gave Spain playmaker Andres Iniesta a rousing ovation as he was substituted.
Fast forward to the World Cup in Brazil and Benzema is now the toast of the Gallic nation, with three goals in as many games and man-of-the-match performances in the victories over Honduras and Switzerland.
He has earned effusive praise from coach Didier Deschamps and his team mates and France will need the 26-year-old to maintain his form if they are to beat Nigeria in Monday’s last-16 clash in Brasilia and set up a quarter-final against Germany or Algeria.
Benzema came into the World Cup following a fine season with Real when he netted 24 goals in 52 games in all competitions and helped the world’s richest club by income to win a 10th Champions League crown and the King’s Cup.
He has put a scoring drought for Les Bleus behind him that stretched for more than 1,200 minutes, and led to him temporarily losing his place in the national team, and looks fit and hungry for success.
A more mature personality after a series of off-field problems and struggles with his weight, he has become a leader in the French side not only in the forward line but in a wider sense as well.
“Karim is one of the top players on the global stage,” team mate Antoine Griezmann told reporters in Brazil this week.
“He is performing at an extremely high level and he is the one who makes us play,” added the Real Sociedad forward.
Deschamps, who captained France to their 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 triumphs, is only too happy to agree.
The Basque-born 45-year-old coach, who took over in July 2012, is trying to lead France to a second World Cup crown after their triumph in 1998 following a series of woeful performances at major tournaments marred by infighting and ill-discipline.
“Benzema has extraordinary movement which underpins the team’s play,” Deschamps told reporters.
“We have always focused on his contribution apart from his goals, which is something that doesn’t happen elsewhere.”
Nigeria’s preparations have been disrupted after they became the latest African country to be embroiled in a money row and the players threatened not to train.
Team officials said on Friday promises of quick payment from the country’s president had resolved the situation but it is hardly the best way for the African champions to prepare for the France game.
Nigeria reached the second round on their first two World Cup appearances in 1994 and 1998 but were eliminated at the group stage at their two subsequent finals in 2002 and 2010.
Their progress to the last 16 has been overshadowed by a suspected bomb attack in the capital Abuja during rush hour on Wednesday when at least 21 people died. An explosion overnight in the northeastern city of Bauchi killed 10 people.
Editing by Ken Ferris