Karim Benzema will be in the spotlight for all the right reasons when he returns to his homeland for the UEFA Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool at the Stade de France.
It will be the most significant football match played at the Saint-Denis venue, just north of Paris, since the Euro 2016 final.
Then, a heavily fancied France, roared on by a partisan home crowd, were stunned by a goal from unheralded Portugal substitute Eder in extra time to lose 1-0, Cristiano Ronaldo having gone off injured.
As Didier Deschamps’ side tried in vain to get back into the match, they could really have done with a striker of Benzema’s sublime class. However, at that stage — in the prime of his career — he was a little over six months into an international exile that lasted for almost six years.
The reasons for his omission had nothing to do with footballing performance and concerned international teammate Mathieu Valbuena, a sex tape and attempted extortion.
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What happened in the Karim Benzema-Mathieu Valbuena sex tape blackmail case?
The scandal dates back to June 2015, when Valbuena was in the process of joining Lyon, a year on from leaving their bitter rivals Marseille, where he was a crowd hero. The midfielder asked a man in Marseille, Axel Angot, to upload content from his mobile phone to a new device.
Angot found sexually explicit material and, along with another man, Mustapha Zouaoui, was accused of attempting to blackmail Valbuena by threatening to make the tape public if he did not pay them money.
Valbuena went to the police, who set up an undercover sting operation. That revealed the involvement of Benzema’s childhood friend, Karim Zenati. Benzema himself was implicated as a “middleman”, according to prosecutors, because he approached Valbuena at a France training camp in October 2015 and encouraged him to pay the blackmailers.
Benzema insisted he was simply trying to help his teammate conclude a potentially embarrassing episode, although police were tapping the group’s phones by that point and a court later heard how they intercepted a call where the Madrid star told Zenati: “He’s not taking us seriously. “
Why was Karim Benzema dropped by France?
In November 2015, Benzema was summoned to a police station in Versailles and spent the night in custody. He was placed under formal judicial review.
In December of that year, the French Football Federation (FFF) announced that Benzema had been suspended from the national team indefinitely. Federation president Noel Le Graet said: “This is a case that involves two people to whom I’m very attached.
“Valbuena is an exceptional man. As a member of the French team, he has never missed the slightest opportunity to shine. He’s an exceptional player.
“Then there’s Benzema … he was born in a difficult district and he hasn’t changed his friends. His friends haven’t moved forward while he has become a star, a media figure, someone who is extremely well off. He doesn’t Communicate particularly well, but he’s intelligent in the game. What’s obvious is that he’s been keeping some bad company.”
Le Graet added that he was “convinced [Benzema] was caught up in something completely crazy which went over his head” but confirmed the forward would not feature at Euro 2016 so long as he remained under judicial review.
Benzema’s status became a national talking point, with then-Prime Minister Manuel Valls saying he should not play for France, while former president Francois Hollande said the ex-Lyon star was “morally, not an example”.
After it was confirmed he would not feature in Deschamps’ Euro 2016 plans, Benzema — who is of Algerian descent — said the coach had “bowed to the pressure of a racist part of France”. Deschamps’ home was subsequently and daubed with graffiti by someone calling him a racist.
“It’s a stain,” Deschamps said in an interview with RTL last year when reflecting on the episode.
“Even if with time it calms down a bit, I can’t forget. It’s not just about Karim Benzema. There are statements by other people too that have led to this violent act, which affects my family.
“Saying certain things necessarily leads to verbal or physical aggression. I suffer the consequences. We cannot forget. I cannot forget. I will never forget.”
By 2019, Le Graet had declared Benzema’s international career to be “over”. While that did not exactly prove to be true, it should be noted that Valbuena never played for Les Bleus again after the scandal came to light.
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When was Karim Benzema recalled by France?
For more than half a decade, France and Benzema continued to enjoy elite success without one another.
Benzema was a key member of the Madrid side that won three consecutive Champions Leagues between 2016 and 2018, before stepping up to become their attacking talisman when Ronaldo left for Juventus after the latter triumph.
Following their Euro 2016 disappointment, France went one better and lifted the 2018 World Cup in Russia, as Kylian Mbappe illuminated the global stage as the breakout superstar of a richly gifted squad.
Perhaps the only position where France lacked depth was up-front and, with first-choice No. 9 Olivier Giroud out of favor at Chelsea, Deschamps brought about a sensational U-turn. In May 2021, Benzema was named in France’s squad for the re-arranged Euro 2020 tournament.
“We met, we spoke at length, I then thought very hard and came to this decision,” said Deschamps. “I needed this chat. He needed this chat. As national team boss, I have always looked beyond.”
One thing he looked beyond was possible friction between Benzema and Giroud. When asked to appraise his own talents alongside the man who benefitted from his international absence from him in 2020, Benzema joked: “You do n’t confuse Formula 1 with karting, and I am being nice.”
Even though France bowed out of Euro 2020 with a shock last-16 exit against Switzerland on penalties, Benzema’s selection on its own terms was a success. Since returning for France, he has scored nine goals in 13 international appearances.
Back at his country’s national stadium this weekend, Benzema is widely considered to be the finest striker on the planet right now. He is a front-runner for the Ballon d’Or, with 44 goals in 45 appearances across all competitions this season — including back-to-back Champions League hat-tricks against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea. He scored the decisive goals in both of those ties, as well as the semifinal win over Manchester City.
Was Karim Benzema found guilty in the Mathieu Valbuena sex tape blackmail case?
Benzema’s renaissance at international level and journey to the summit of the world game came amid the Valbuena affair finally going to trial.
In November 2021, Benzema was found guilty of conspiring to blackmail his former France colleague. He was handed a one-year suspended jail term and ordered to pay a €75,000 fine ($84,000; £63,000), along with €80,000 to cover Valbuena’s legal costs and €150,000 in damages. All four co-defendants were found guilty in connection with the blackmail attempt.
Neither Valbuena nor Benzema were in court in Versailles when the verdict was handed down, with the latter rounding off the scoring in Madrid’s 3-0 Champions League win at Sheriff Tiraspol later the same day.
In their written ruling, the judges said Benzema had “deliberately helped the authors of the attempted blackmail of Valbuena.”
Benzema has always denied any wrongdoing and his lawyers announced after the verdict that they would appeal the conviction. That appeal hearing has reportedly been set for June 30 this year.
But his conviction did not mean his France career was once again in jeopardy. Before the verdict, Le Graet showed he, like Deschamps, had shifted on the matter. “The coach will always be responsible for his selection of him and Benzema will not be left out because of an eventual judicial sanction,” he said.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.