By JEROME PUGMIRE
AP Sports Writer
DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Defending champion France’s World Cup hopes took a huge blow with the news that star striker Karim Benzema is out of the tournament after tearing a muscle in his left thigh during training on Saturday.
“Karim Benzema is out of the World Cup,” the French soccer federation (FFF) said. “After hurting the quadriceps on his left thigh the Real Madrid striker is forced to give up on taking part in the World Cup.”
Benzema was participating in his first full training session with Les Bleus when he had to come off after feeling some pain in his left thigh, the FFF said.
“He went for an MRI scan in a hospital (clinic) in Doha, which unfortunately confirmed a tear,” the FFF said, adding that he will need three weeks to recover.
Benzema addressed his fans after the news emerged.
“I’ve never given up in my life but tonight I have to think of the team, as I have always done,” Benzema posted on his Instagram account. “So reason tells me to give my place to someone who can help our squad have a great World Cup. Thanks for all your messages of support.”
France coach Didier Deschamps said: “I’m very sad for Karim who had made this World Cup a major objective,”
Benzema had hardly played at all in recent weeks and this was his first full training session with Les Bleus.
Since winning the Ballon d’Or last month, Benzema has played fewer than 30 minutes for Madrid, after coming off the bench in a Champions League game.
France faces Australia on Tuesday in Group D, then Denmark four days later and Tunisia on Nov. 30.
It is a crushing blow for Benzema, only the fifth Frenchman to win the Ballon d’Or award and the first since Zinedine Zidane, his idol, in 1998.
The hugely talented Benzema, who is of Algerian descent, came through Lyon’s renowned youth academy and scored the first of his Champions League goals as an audaciously gifted 17-year-old. He’s now fourth all-time with 86.
Benzema was France’s top scorer at the 2014 World Cup but did not play in France’s victorious 2018 World Cup campaign because he was still exiled from the team for his alleged role in a sex-tape scandal with then-France teammate Mathieu Valbuena.
The fallout from the sex-tape scandal led to a dramatic fall from grace for Benzema. He faced a nationwide deluge of vitriol and scathing criticism, including on the political level. It led to a long exclusion from the national team from Oct. 2015 until his recall by Deschamps in May last year.
With his relationship with Deschamps repaired he scored freely for France, with 10 goals in 16 games since coming back to reach 37 overall, and formed a great partnership with Kylian Mbappe.
He won the hearts of French fans and cemented his place in the affections of Madrid’s equally demanding supporters. Benzema won five Champions League titles and has moved up to second place in the famed Spanish giant’s all-time scoring list with 329 goals.
At last year’s European Championship, Benzema looked sharp and was France’s top scorer with four goals.
Earlier this week Benzema gave reassuring news in an extract of an interview with L’Equipe’s television channel, which was set to air on Sunday.
“I’m fine. I had a bit of pain but no tear and no serious injury. I could have played (for Madrid) but I wasn’t at 100%,” he told L’Equipe’s TV channel this week.
Now Benzema joins the list of big names injured shortly before the World Cup — like Bayern Munich’s Sadio Mane and Germany’s Timo Werner. Not to mention Benzema’s own teammates, Paul Pogba, N’Gole Kante and Christopher Nkunku.
Deschamps has seen his squad riddled with injuries.
Nkunku was injured just minutes before the end of the team’s last training session on Tuesday evening and replaced in the squad by Randal Kolo Muani on Wednesday.
Deschamps is already missing midfielders Pogba and Kante, who helped France win the World Cup four years ago.
Deschamps has an anxious wait to see if his best central defender, Raphael Varane, is fit to face Australia — exactly a month since he limped off for Manchester United with a hamstring injury.
Fellow World Cup winner and central defender Presnel Kimpembe pulled out Monday after failing to sufficiently recover from a six-week layoff following a hamstring injury.
Even without Benzema, France still has a strong attack to face Australia. France is likely to start with Olivier Giroud as the central striker, flanked by 2018 World Cup star Mbappe and either Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembele or veteran Antoine Griezmann.
Giroud has scored 49 goals for France, Griezmann has 42 and the 23-year-old Mbappe already has 28. Dembele has been in fine form for Spanish league leader Barcelona this season.
Deschamps has until Monday — the eve of the Australia game — to call up a replacement for Benzema to his 26-player squad. Monaco striker Wissam Ben Yedder, who has three international goals, could be an option.
But Deschamps already has ample forward backup with Bayern Munich winger Kingsley Coman, Marcus Thuram and Kolo Muani.
Benzema would have turned 35 the day after the World Cup final. If France reaches it, he won’t be there to play in Qatar, just like four years ago in Russia.
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