Real Madrid star Karim Benzema went on trial in France on Wednesday accused of complicity in the attempted blackmail of former international teammate Mathieu Valbuena who said he felt “in danger” in a case known as the “sex tape affair”.
Benzema, 33, is suspected of helping a group of alleged blackmailers approach Valbuena in 2015, in an attempt to extort money that rocked the French national side.
The 33-year-old France striker, who scored the fifth and final goal to take Real Madrid to a 5-0 win over Shakhtar Donetsk in the group stage of the Champions League in Kiev on Tuesday night, did not attend the start of the proceedings in the Paris suburb of Versailles.
His lawyer Antoine Vey said he could not be present for “professional” reasons.
Four other people are being tried alongside Benzema over an affair which saw the player cast out of the French team for five-and-a-half years before making a stunning comeback in this year’s European Championship.
‘I felt in danger’
The murky affair began when Valbuena handed his smartphone to Axel Angot, a man connected to footballing circles in the southern port city of Marseille, with the request to transfer its contents to a new device.
Angot, who is on trial for breach of trust, came across sexually explicit footage on the phone involving Valbuena.
Valbuena, who was also excluded from the French team over the row, told the court on Wednesday the first he heard about the blackmail attempt was when former teammate Djibril Cisse contacted him in May 2015 to tell him a compromising video of him had emerged.
“Initially, I didn’t believe it, I thought they were bluffing,” the midfielder, who plays for Greek club Olympiakos, said.
He said Cisse, who had himself been the victim of a similiar blackmail attempt, then described to him the contents of the video, an extract of which he had received via WhatsApp.
“I felt in danger, my first reflex was to file a criminal complaint,” Valbuena said.
“I feared for my sporting career and for the French team,” he added.
“I knew if the video came out things would be difficult for me in the French team, as was proven to be the case later.”
Prosecutors says Angot hatched a plot with a friend, Mustapha Zouaoui, to threaten Valbuena with publication of the footage unless he paid them.
Valbuena told the court he was contacted by a man with connections in football, Younes Houass, who was used by Angot and Zouaoi as one of several shadowy middleman, before trying to enlist Benzema’s help.
Houass told the court that Valbuena “did not seem to understand” the gravity of the situation and that he advised him to seek advice from “a person whom you can trust”.
Houass was cut short by the presiding judge, who ordered him to “stop trying to make out you’re Mother Theresa.”
‘Very heavy criminals’
The alleged blackmailers later contacted one of Benzema’s old friends, Karim Zenati, who prosecutors say enlisted Benzema’s help in the extortion attempt.
On October 6, 2015, Benzema went to see Valbuena in his room at the French national team’s training centre at Clairefontaine, west of Paris.
He told his teammate that he could introduce him to a “trustworthy person” to help him “manage” the possible publication of a compromising video.
In what Benzema later claimed was an attempt to help his teammate out of a difficult situation, he told him: “Be careful, ‘Math’, these are very, very heavy criminals.”
Benzema then called Zenati and told him in a conversation wiretapped by police: “He’s not taking us seriously.”
Prosecutors say that the word “us” proves that Benzema saw himself as part of the blackmail scheme.
“If he doesn’t want us to handle this for him, he’ll have to deal with the piranhas,” Zenati said.
Benzema replied that “they will piss on him”, and in a subsequent conversation referred to Valbuena using a derogatory term for a homosexual, which he said later was meant “in a friendly way”.
The maximum sentence for complicity in attempted blackmail is five years in prison and a fine of 70,000 euros ($81,000).
Benzema has argued that the undercover police officer used dishonest methods to draw him into the affair.
He complained bitterly about being dropped from the national team for years, accusing France coach Didier Deschamps of a “racist” decision linked to his north African origins.
Since returning to the squad he has put in some impressive performances which have given him a new-found popularity with French fans.
Deschamps said this month that “he’s no longer the same person, he’s matured”.