Versailles (France) (AFP) – The alleged mastermind of the attempt to blackmail French footballer Mathieu Valbuena with a sex tape, over which Real Madrid star Karim Benzema is on trial, on Thursday apologised to Valbuena for the incident which damaged his career.
Benzema is accused of complicity in an attempt to extort money from his former France team-mate Valbuena over a video that was copied from his smartphone in 2015.
The affair rocked the French national team and led to both Benzema and Valbuena being cast out of the squad. Benzema, 33, made a successful comeback during this year’s European championships but Valbuena, 37, was never called up by Les Bleus again.
“I apologise from the bottom of my heart, I really regret it,” Mustapha Zouaoui, one of four people accused along with Benzema of trying to hold Valbuena to ransom, told Valbuena on the second day of the trial.
Zouaoui is believed to have come up with the blackmail plot, which Valbuena says left him feeling fearful, both for his safety and his career.
Benzema, who played and scored for Real in a Champions League match in Ukraine on Tuesday, is not attending the proceedings in Versailles outside Paris.
– ‘Holy Grail’ –
Testifying on the opening day of the trial, Valbuena said being selected for the national team was “the Holy Grail for footballers” and that he “never could have imagined” a team-mate being implicated in a plot against him.
Benzema claims he was only trying to help the midfielder when he approached him about the sex tape in October 2015 and told him he could help him find someone to “manage” the affair.
He also warned Valbuena that he was dealing with “very, very heavy criminals”.
Valbuena, 37, who now plays for Greek club Olympiakos, told the court Benzema was “very insistent” during the conversation at the French team’s training centre in Clairefontaine, west of Paris.
He said the exchange left him feeling “frightened” and that while money was not discussed it was clear that Benzema was not suggesting payment “in football tickets.”
Prosecutors believe that Benzema was trying to pressure Valbuena into paying hush money.
They point to a phone-tapped conversation in which the striker told a friend acting as a middlemen for the suspected blackmailers that “he’s not taking us seriously” as proof that Benzema was an accomplice to the extortion attempt.
Benzema’s lawyer claimed Wednesday the case was driven by what he called Valbuena’s “jealousy” of his more successful former international team-mate.
“His reasoning is simple: ‘Me, I was sidelined (from the team) and never brought back and declined in sporting terms while there is Karim Benzema who is flying high in global football,” lawyer Sylvain Cormier told reporters outside the courtroom.
If convicted Benzema faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of 70,000 euros ($81,000).
Since returning to the French squad for this year’s European Championship he has put in some impressive performances which have given him a new-found popularity with French fans.
France coach Didier Deschamps said this month that “he’s no longer the same person, he’s matured”.