Speaking to FIFA.com after contributing two goals to France’s comprehensive 3-0 defeat of Argentina on Saturday, Yassine Benzia was almost at a loss for words. “It’s magical, it’s fantastic,” he said with a tear in his eye and a broad smile on his face. “It’s an amazing experience, to see all the fans on their feet.”
What makes Benzia’s match-winning performance all the sweeter is the fact that he very nearly missed the trip to Mexico altogether. The Lyon youngster had gone a whole year without receiving a call from Bleuets coach Patrick Gonfalone, though he insists he had no point to prove against the Argentinians: “I don’t see it that way. Obviously I was disappointed to miss the European Championship, but I’m in the France team now. I’ve been handed the chance to give my all in this World Cup, and I’m going to take it.”
Stationed on the left wing of Gonfalone’s 4-3-3 formation against the South Americans, Benzia seized his opportunity with both hands, providing the cutting edge France needed as they recovered from a sluggish start to sweep their opponents aside. “We were having a bit of a problem with our finishing,” explained the two-goal hero. “We couldn’t put our chances away, but we were sure of our strength and we just needed to click to get going.”
Coming up trumps
It was the tall striker of Algerian descent who provided the impetus the French needed in their Group B opener. Latching on to Lenny Nangis’s inch-perfect pass, he put his side ahead on 35 minutes with a cool side-footed finish. Then, on the stroke of half-time, he doubled his tally for the day and put France out of sight, allowing another finely weighted pass to run between his legs before hammering the ball home.
“He’s a player I’ve been tracking for a long time,” said coach Gonfalone. “I picked him for the game against Germany at the end of last season and I could see he had a lot of quality. I was just waiting for him to hit his best form. I knew from what the coaching staff at Lyon had said and from what I knew of him that it was a bit of a gamble, but luckily it paid off.”
Getting his name onto the squad list was one thing. Getting into the starting XI for such an important game quite another. “I think I gained the coach’s trust in the week’s training we had together,” said Benzia, explaining his rapid promotion. “I’ve put a lot into this World Cup. I worked tremendously hard in training and against Mexico in our warm-up match, and it’s paid off.”
The heir to Sinama and Benzema
His 36 goals for Lyon in this season’s French U-17 championship were unquestionably a major factor in his selection. A new arrival from US Quevilly at the start of the season, Benzia quickly found himself being compared to some illustrious former Lyon stars, Karim Benzema among them. “Hatem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema are both fantastic players and ex-Lyon stars,” he said. “Benzema is my role model in fact, and I’m determined to follow in their footsteps.”
Another trail-blazing compatriot the No20 will do well to emulate during his stay in Mexico is Florent Sinama Pongolle, who, not unlike Benzia, was an unexpected pick in Jean-Francois Jodar’s squad for Trinidad and Tobago 2001. The Reunion islander went on to top-score in the tournament with nine goals, a haul that secured him the adidas Golden Shoe and Golden Ball and helped the French claim the world crown.
Talking to FIFA.com just a few weeks ago, Sinama Pongolle recalled his achievement: “It was an incredible experience and what made it all the more amazing for me was that I hadn’t been part of the team in the run-up to the World Cup. I got a place in the 21-man squad after one of my team-mates was injured. It changed my life.”
A similar life-changing experience could just be about to befall another French youngster with the world at his feet.