Karim Benzema is haunted by his gangland past as sex scandal and blackmail court case keep him from palying in the tournament
- Karim Benzema was left out of the France squad for Euro 2016
- The striker played as Real Madrid beat Atletico in Champions League final
- The ex-Lyon man grew up in a notoriously volatile estate in Bron-Terraillon
- He is alleged to have been involved in a plot to blackmail Mathieu Valbuena
- His international team-mate is alleged to have been involved in a sex tape
Growing up in the eastern suburbs of Lyon, Karim Benzema was the little boy his youth coaches nicknamed ‘Coco’, who strutted around the fractious district of Bron-Terraillon with his childhood friends, listening to rap music and setting up street football games.
By his own admission, Real Madrid forward Benzema was an impulsive boy of the banlieues (suburbs). He once revealed to Sportsmail his favourite movie is American Gangster and his admiration for Valentino Rossi and motor racing.
His hometown of Terraillon is a notoriously volatile estate heavily populated by disenfranchised and despondent youngsters, often the second and third generation children of North African immigrant families. Benzema himself is of Algerian descent.
The challenges for the authorities are significant. A police commissioner’s report in 2013 described Terraillon as the only district in the Rhone region that ‘continues to lag behind’ in its attempts to decrease delinquency and crime.
Benzema, however, was the boy who was supposed to have escaped the gangland culture through talent and application, becoming a worldwide superstar for Real Madrid.
He is the scorer of more than 150 club career goals, the spearhead of a two-time Champions League-winning attack flanked by Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. He has 27 goals in 81 appearances for France.
And yet, when France begin their home European Championship campaign a week on Friday, Benzema will be nowhere to be seen. Instead, at the age of 28, he finds his career and indeed his liberty in the balance.
His future has become a matter of debate for everyone in France from Eric Cantona to the Prime Minister Manuel Valls and the French Football Federation after it was announced in April that Benzema would be excluded from the France squad for the home Euros this summer.
So just how has this global striking hero — with an annual income estimated by Forbes to be in the region of £10.5million — fallen in such a dramatic manner?
The Benzema story is a remarkable tale of sleaze and scandal. In a scarcely credible plot line, he is alleged to have been involved in a plot to blackmail France international team-mate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape.
The story begins in the summer of 2014, when a video of Valbuena having sex made its way into the hands of one of the player’s own entourage. Two individuals — in addition to Benzema and his childhood friend Karim Zenati — have since been accused of blackmailing Valbuena and allegedly threatened to release the video if they did not receive a pay-off in the region of £100,000.
Last June, Valbuena went to the police and investigations revealed phone conversations featuring Benzema and Zenati, also from the Terraillon suburb.
On November 28 Benzema was called from Madrid to Versailles, where he was held in police custody overnight.
Prosecutors believe Zenati pressed Benzema to persuade Valbuena to cough up the cash. It is an allegation Benzema fiercely denies. He admits to speaking to Valbuena during last October’s international break to tell him he had been made aware of the situation but insists he told his team-mate not to pay the money.
Valbuena initially corroborated this version of events, saying Benzema was acting in his interests. Investigators, however, believed the truth to be more damaging and Benzema’s position was weakened when Radio Europe 1 published phone transcripts between Benzema and Zenati that counter the striker’s version of events.
The conversation reveals that Benzema told Valbuena: ‘If you want the video to be destroyed come and see my friend in Lyon.’
Benzema also says he told Valbuena, ‘You can see everything’ in the tape, after the Lyon player asked, ‘Can you see my tattoos in the video?’
Benzema faces possible charges of ‘complicity in a blackmail attempt’. A date is still to be announced for the final trial but if the Real Madrid forward is found guilty he faces a five-year prison sentence.
The suspicion has always been that Benzema has never really left Terraillon, constantly drawn back by his network of childhood friends and associates. The consensus is that long ago he should have cut his ties with Zenati, 32, who is known to the Lyon police and was jailed for eight years in 2006 for armed robbery.
This is not Benzema’s first scrape with the law. In 2012 he and France team-mate Franck Ribery were charged with soliciting a minor.
Both were acquitted in 2014 as they were said to be unaware of the age of a prostitute-turned-fashion model, Zahia Dehar, who was 17 at the time of the alleged encounter. Benzema denied all the allegations.
One L’Equipe columnist asked whether ‘Benzema symbolises a generation of footballers who possess talent but little idea how to handle themselves off the field’.
Sources close to the player admitted to Sportsmail over recent months that the striker is ‘concerned and hurt’ by the developments.
In a statement to Sportsmail in March, Benzema’s lawyer Sylvain Courmier said: ‘Karim is shocked to have been named and shamed in this way. But he is a strong man who is battling every day to protect his innocence and his honour.
‘Karim Benzema is not implicated in any way in a blackmail plot. On the contrary, he also is the victim of a blackmail attempt purely because he tried to help out his team-mate (Valbuena).
‘Karim Benzema is innocent. We will prove it.’
For Benzema, the long-term outlook is in the balance but his short-term future with the national team is now more clear-cut. After months of pontificating, the France Football Federation confirmed that he would not be going to the Euros because of the ongoing case. Benzema’s position became a national concern.
Prime Minister Valls insisted he should not return, stating that a ‘great sportsman must set an example’. Benzema responded with a tweet: ‘I have been a professional for 12 seasons!!! 541 matches played, 0 red cards, 11 yellow cards. And some question the example I set???’
Valbuena has also missed the cut — but for footballing reasons after an under-par season. Sources close to the playmaker believe his form at Lyon dropped off under the strain of off-field events.
Over the past week, the debate has reignited in explosive fashion with France and Manchester United legend Eric Cantona arguing that coach Didier Deschamps’s team selection was racially motivated, underlining the exclusion of Benzema and former Newcastle forward Hatem Ben Arfa, who is of Tunisian descent.
On Wednesday, Benzema broke his silence in an interview with Spanish sports newspaper Marca and, when asked if he agreed with Cantona’s suggestion, said: ‘No, I don’t think so but he has bowed to pressure from a racist part of France. You have to know that an extremist party reached the second round in the last two elections in France.
‘I have more than 40 million fans on social media and they said that people don’t want me. That’s ridiculous.
‘I don’t know if the decision was Didier’s or the president’s but what I would like is that they make the decisions (themselves) and don’t bow to pressure.
‘And I think that’s what happened. Having said that, I am with France and I wish them all the best.’
Sources close to the France team fear that this controversy could overshadow another tournament. During the early stages of the investigation, Benzema retained the respect of the French dressing room. Many are said to have texted both him and Valbuena messages of support.
Patience, however, wore thin as the case lingered. Striker Olivier Giroud has said the scandal can ‘pollute team spirit’, while Patrice Evra, the Juventus and former Manchester United defender, says France have ‘shot themselves in the foot’.
Speaking to Sportsmail on Wednesday, one prominent French sports journalist laid out the political landscape: ‘In France, it’s a very complex time socially and there are divisions in society that are manifesting themselves through this debate.
‘I’d probably say one third of France supports Benzema and his right to express himself but the other two thirds think he only has himself to blame.
‘Among the players, there has been quite a strong minority among the group that was behind Benzema. They were never likely to make a fuss before or during the tournament but today there is a feeling he has betrayed them with this interview on the eve of the Euros and added to the pressure of a home tournament.’
For their part, Real Madrid have offered their support to Benzema and President Florentino Perez is said to have paid a personal visit to the player following his arrest in the winter.
In Benzema’s absence from the national team, opportunities abound for others. When Anthony Martial’s representatives were in Manchester in the winter, they were excitedly informing associates that the young talent perceived Benzema’s possible omission as his opportunity to stake his claim for a place at the Euros.
That place is now assured after Martial produced dazzling assists against Germany and Holland, confirming his status as France’s rising star. Giroud, Antoine Griezmann, Dimitri Payet and Andre-Pierre Gignac and Kingsley Coman all provide formidable alternatives.
Benzema, however, will only be watching from the sofa.