French team suspends Benzema over sex scandal

Karim Benzema, right, is embroiled in a sex tape scandal with teammate Mathieu Valbuena, left. (David Vincent/AP)

PARIS — Karim Benzema was indefinitely suspended from the French national team on Thursday because of his involvement in an ongoing blackmail case, throwing his international career into doubt.

The Real Madrid striker has been charged with conspiracy to blackmail relating to an extortion scam over a sex tape involving France teammate Mathieu Valbuena.

"I have decided that he is not available for selection," France soccer federation president Noel Le Graet said, calling it a "heart-breaking" decision.

The 27-year-old Benzema, who denies wrongdoing, is suspected of playing an active role in pressuring Valbuena to deal with the blackmailers in possession of the tape.

"I respect the decision and I have faith in our president Noel Le Graet," Benzema said in a brief response on his Twitter feed.

France has two friendly matches left before the country hosts the European Championship starting June 10 — against the Netherlands and Russia in late March.

Unless the case evolves in Benzema’s favour, he won’t be part of the team, all-but ruling him out of Euro 2016 with France coach Didier Deschamps naming his squad in May.

"I leave a glimmer of hope if the case changes," Le Graet said. "My wish is that this case diminishes and that these two France players can shake hands."

Le Graet said he took the decision himself and then informed Deschamps, with whom he has a close relationship.

"We’re in an embarrassing situation concerning a case we’d rather avoid," Le Graet said, adding that he still likes Benzema.

"It doesn’t change that I have a lot of esteem for this guy. I think he’s a good guy, a guy who grew up in a tough neighbourhood and never changed his friends," Le Graet said. "I have a heart. Giving out suspensions has never been my cup of tea."

Benzema’s involvement in the plot has not yet been fully determined, but investigators believe he was approached by a childhood friend to act as an intermediary.

"I’ve never backed down from anything but this one is complex because it’s not finished yet, it’s not clear what happened," Le Graet said. "I’m sure Benzema’s been caught up in something crazy."

Two weeks ago, Benzema gave a television interview to French broadcaster TF1.

"I’m being accused, dragged through the mud in every direction, like I was a criminal," Benzema said in an impassioned bid to clear his name, recalling being held overnight at a police station. "I was made to sleep in custody like a scumbag."

Earlier this week, Benzema’s lawyers requested a face-to-face meeting with Valbuena in an effort to ease tensions — a meeting Le Graet said he hopes can happen.

The suspension comes with Benzema in peak form, scoring five goals in his past two games for Real Madrid.

The Spanish club said in a statement that it "laments and respects" the decision by the French federation, and reiterated that it continues to "support" and "trust" the player.

He is easily France’s best scorer with 27 goals in 81 international matches. Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud is the next highest scorer with 13 in 45 matches.

Benzema also missed the 2010 World Cup. Former coach Raymond Domenech left him out of his squad in the wake of another scandal, when Benzema and teammate Franck Ribery were handed preliminary charges for soliciting an underage prostitute. Both were acquitted.

At last year’s World Cup in Brazil, Benzema scored three goals as France reached the quarterfinals.

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