French footballer Karim Benzema told judges investigating his role in the alleged attempted blackmail of his national teammate Mathieu Valbuena that it was a misunderstanding blown out of proportion. The Real Madrid star is under formal investigation in France for conspiracy to blackmail and participating in a criminal group over allegations he acted as middleman in a plot to extort money from the Lyon midfielder with a sex video.
The case has tarnished the striker's reputation, with even French Prime Minister Manuel Valls calling for him to be banned from the national team. However, Benzema denies any wrongdoing. "I think all this is a big misunderstanding," he told investigating judge Nathalie Boutard during questioning, according to extracts published by Le Monde newspaper.
The 27-year-old allegedly contacted Valbuena, to persuade the 31-year-old him to strike a deal with blackmailers who threatened to publish a lewd video of him. Benzema was made aware of the clip through a childhood friend, Karim Zenati, who is also under investigation. The two were having a meal together in Madrid when they were joined by a third person who knew Zenati.
"A person gave me a Louis Vuitton bag and told me about a video on Mathieu Valbuena," Benzema recalled, saying he had not met the man before. "And there, at that moment, I said to him: "Stop now, I do not want to hear about [this]".
He was given more details about the clip at a later date by Zenati and decided to speak to Valbuena, as the two were training together ahead of a France game, but only to help him out. "Initially, I wanted to inform him of this story about him and help him," he told the judge.
Benzema claims he never watched the video, despite having let his teammate believe otherwise, providing him with details he said he heard from Zenati. From the extracts, it emerges Benzema has great confidence in his childhood friend who grew up in the same Lyon suburb and was hired by the forward after serving time in jail for robbery and drugs.
"Karim told me that it was a serious video and that's what I told Mathieu. I depicted it based on what I was told by Karim, because I trust him and he is my best friend," he said. "He is like a brother."
Benzema claimed he was sure Zenati was not in for the money, telling the judge he believed his friend's mediation in the affair was gratuitous. "Because he lacks nothing," he said. "That's why I do not understand the story of blackmail and money ... I have made it in my life. I share with him because he is my friend since childhood."
'You shouldn't treat people like idiots'
In an earlier interview with Le Monde, Valbuena said Benzema "indirectly" tried to persuade him to strike a deal with the alleged blackmailers. "He did not talk about money specifically and directly, but when you insist on me to meet someone... hmmmm. I have never met anyone who is going to destroy a video for free just because they love me! You shouldn't treat people like idiots," he said.
Benzema was also a quizzed about the insulting language he used to refer to Valbuena in a taped phone conversation with Zenati. The striker claimed he did not mean bad, saying he was fooling around over the phone with a friend but regretted using foul language. He also claimed the word "tarlouze" a derogatory term for homosexual, which he used to describe his teammate, had actually an amical connotation in slang.
"I'm really disappointed with the magnitude of this story, because blackmail, stuff like that, frankly it's serious. The same is true for my friend Karim Zenati," Benzema concluded. "When we spoke on the phone, we laughed, we did not get the scale of the affair that has fallen back on me again. Frankly, I am furious."
The striker is expected to publicly speak about the case in a televised interview on 2 December. It comes after Valls said he should be kicked out of France's national team. "A great athlete should be exemplary," the prime minister told French radio Europe 1 on 1 December. "If he is not, he has no place within the France team." Benzema faces up to five years in jail if found guilty of the charges, which his lawyer, denies on behalf of his client.