DANIEL MATTHEWS: Karim Benzema And Mathieu Valbuena Will Both Struggle To Shake Off This Filthy Story
The verdict lasted barely half an hour, slightly longer than the conversation that turned this seedy affair of sex tapes and blackmail into a six-year scandal that has stained the fabric of French football.
Shortly after 10 a.m. Wednesday, Judge Christophe Morgan rose from his chair and slipped out the back door of Courtroom C in Versailles. His job was done.
Neither Karim Benzema nor Mathieu Valbuena were in the room. Neither of them can shake off a case that has tied them together since 2015. On Wednesday, Benzema was 1,500 miles away, scoring for Real Madrid in their 3-0 Champions League win over Sheriff, hours after serving a 12-month suspended sentence for his role in the attempted blackmail of a former France team-mate.
The judge fined €75,000 and ordered Benzema to pay €80,000 for Valbuena’s legal costs and €1 in damages to the French Football Association.
The conviction marks only the beginning of a new chapter in this sordid tale.
Minutes after their client’s fate was sealed, Benzema’s lawyers were met by a media scrum.
Real Madrid star Karim Benzema (pictured) has been found guilty of complicity in attempting to blackmail fellow player Mathieu Valbuena
Investigators alleged that Benzema (right) encouraged Valbuena (left) to pay a group of alleged blackmailers to keep a sexually explicit band out of the public eye
An hour before the courtroom got up, TV crews began to gather outside the courthouse to hear all five suspects sentenced. In the absence of their client, Benzema’s legal team – Sylvain Cormier and Antoine Vey – were courted as celebrities by proxy.
Vey, in particular, licked the eye as he sauntered through the flashing cameras on his way to court. When they reappeared, faced with a wall of microphones and a bunch of journalists, the mood had shifted. The lawyers regretted the verdict and announced that Benzema would appeal.
“It is a harsh, unfair sentence, we are stunned by this verdict,” Cormier said. “Karim Benzema is acquitted because he has nothing to be ashamed of.”
Benzema, 33, missed both the trial and this verdict for “professional reasons.” His lawyers believe that was against him and suggested that he come next time. Before long, the two lawyers slipped out of court. They moved next door, to a quaint cafe, Le Royal. It was time for coffee and a conflab about a conversation that is key to this case.
At the end of 2015, Benzema led the line for both Madrid and France. Valbuena, then with Lyon, had also made himself a fixture under Didier Deschamps.
With Euro 2016 – a home tournament – on the horizon, the two were regulars at Clairefontaine, the national football center, 20 miles further southwest of Paris.
Problems are brewing beneath the surface. A sex tape was found on Valbuena’s phone and an anonymous caller threatened to release the footage if he didn’t pay. Through a childhood friend, Benzema became an intermediary. On October 6, the striker told Valbuena that he knew someone who could help him out of the predicament.
“Watch out, Math, these are very, very serious criminals,” Benzema warned in a conversation that reportedly lasted about 25 minutes.
Benzema’s lawyers insisted he was looking for a teammate. Prosecutors alleged he was part of a conspiracy dating back to July 2014, when Axel Angot, a player fixer in Marseille, stumbled across the tape while transferring data from Valbuena’s phone.
Angot showed the footage to his associate, Mustapha Zouaoui, a petty criminal who bought football players’ luxury items and was identified as “the mastermind” behind the plan.
Benzema’s attorney Sylvain Cormier (above) said his client has “nothing to be ashamed of.”
Angot admitted they saw the sex tape as a way to settle a €25,000 debt they owed another former footballer. The judge ruled that they hoped to earn up to €150,000. Zouaoui turned to Karim Zenati, a convicted armed robber and lifelong friend of Benzema. The judge said that instead of money, loyalty to Zenati forged on the street in Bron — a rough suburb of Lyon — lured Benzema to this case.
The suspects were soon under surveillance. Undercover police posed as friends of Valbuena.
A month after speaking with Valbuena, Benzema was taken into custody and charged with complicity in attempted blackmail. It took almost six years for the case to go to trial. For most of that time, Benzema was in international exile. He missed Euro 2016. He missed France’s win at the 2018 World Cup. It was only earlier this year that he was recalled by Deschamps. What now?
Well, French football chief Noel Le Graet insists he remains available for selection. For Valbuena, on the other hand, this piece of justification comes too late. He had not played for France for five days after speaking with Benzema.
The now 37-year-old Olympiacos midfielder can never make up for lost time. Both will struggle to shake the rubble of this case.
Valbuena appeared on the first two days of last month’s trial, where he was mocked and details of his private life were aired to the court.
His mother and sister had to listen as Zouaoui branded Valbuena’s house a “shagodrome,” where men slept openly with a revolving horde of women.
Benzema (left) said he knew someone who could help “manage” the potential release of Valbuena (right) sex tape
The judge said Benzema’s motive was not money, but his unwavering relationship with his childhood friend Karim Zenati (pictured)
His international prospects were in tatters and his club career in France also collapsed years ago as the scandal weighed heavily on him.
He left his homeland in 2017 in search of ‘somewhere where I would be judged solely on my football’. He missed yesterday’s ruling to prepare for Thursday night’s Europa League game against Fenerbahce.
None of the suspects showed up. Benzema risked a maximum sentence of five years, the Public Prosecution Service wanted a 10-month suspension. The judge thought he deserved more.
Morgan summed up his 74-page verdict, saying that Benzema “falsely presented himself as a friend who wanted to help his teammate” and instead “used his professional status” to try “to convince Valbuena to submit to blackmail.” ‘.
Benzema (left) is allowed to play for France again, but Valbuena’s career there is over
Valbuena, who turned up for trial, is now 37 and plays for Greece’s Olympiacos
A taped telephone conversation between Benzema and Zenati after the fateful conversation, played out in court, led the judge to claim there was “a certain amount of excitement” about the footballer’s involvement.
Benzema will try to prove otherwise during his appeal.
As for Valbuena? “He overcame this ordeal with courage, discretion and honesty,” said his lawyer Didier Domat. “This will not take away the damage he has caused by his exclusion from the French team.”
Unfortunately this is not closed either.