PARIS, November 5 – A sex tape blackmail scandal involving star striker Karim Benzema plunged France into new strife seven months before they host the European Championships.
Benzema, who has been charged with complicity to blackmail, and Mathieu Valbuena, the victim of the extortion attempt, were left out of the French squad named Thursday for friendlies against Germany and England this month.
French coach Didier Deschamps said that Benzema, 27, was “injured” and refused to answer questions on the case against the Real Madrid striker.
He said he spoke to Benzema on Monday, before the player was taken into custody, and the two had agreed that he would not be available.
Deschamps added that he had decided to leave Valbuena out of the team. “He isn’t in the best psychological condition because of this affair, so I decided to let him rest,” the coach said.
“With Mathieu. It was my decision,” he added.
Benzema has admitted a role in an attempt by three blackmailers to get 150,000 euros ($163,000) from the 31-year-old Lyon midfielder for a leaked sex tape of him.
France play Germany on November 13 in Paris and England on November 17 at Wembley in friendlies as they prepare to host Euro 2016 without any competitive games.
The French team, World Cup winners in 1998, have regularly been hit by off-the-pitch troubles.
– Speed –
At the 2010 World Cup the squad went on strike after Nicolas Anelka was sent home for insulting the coach of the time, Raymond Domenech.
In 2013, Benzema and another French star, Franck Ribery, were charged with having sex with an underage prostitute. The case was eventually dropped for lack of evidence, while the young woman, Zahia Dehar, has become a reality TV show star and fashion designer.
Benzema has also been repeatedly in trouble with police for speeding.
Deschamps refused repeated questions about the latest case. “The judiciary has take over this affair. The best is to let them work.”
But he acknowledged that Germany and England would be “two big matches” and played down the impact of the turmoil on France’s chances for next year.
The two games “will give us a trend now but it will not give the truth for June. Our aim is June.
“Like any coach I would prefer to have all the players available for every match. Unfortunately that is not the case, for different reasons.”
Deschamps said he knew most of the players he wants for Euro 2016.
“I want to have a maximum of information. The door is not closed, but it is not very open because if a new player comes in someone has to go out.
“I am going to have difficult decision as usual, perhaps a bit more, never mind. Everyone has their chance in the team.” He said that any player chosen had “to bring something into the French team”.
Since the underage sex storm blew over, Benzema has become France’s number one striker and a trusted partner for Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid.
Benzema was was the French league’s top scorer with 20 goals when he was at Lyon in 2007-2008.
He should be one of France’s most senior players going into the European Championships, with 81 caps and 27 goals.
Deschamps has stood with Benzema through thick-and-thin up to now. This case risks lasting months and casting a shadow over the whole French campaign.
However, one man who stands to benefit from Benzema’s absence is striker Andre-Pierre Gignac, who might have thought his last chance of making the squad for Euro 2016 had gone when he left Marseille for Mexican club Tigres UNAL in the close season.
Deschamps has handed the 29-year-old Gignac a surprise recall, opening the way for him to add to his 21-cap tally.