Former France international Mathieu Valbuena told a court Wednesday he “felt in danger" after being targeted in a blackmail attempt involving a sex tape over which his former teammate, Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, has gone on trial.
France striker Benzema is accused of complicity in an attempt to extort money from Valbuena over a video that was copied from his smartphone in 2015.
Benzema denies the allegations.
The affair rocked the French national team and led to the 33-year-old Madrid star being cast out of the side for five-and-a-half years before making a surprise comeback this year.
Valbuena, who was also excluded from the team over the row, told the court at the start of the trial Wednesday that he feared for his career when he realised he was being blackmailed.
Benzema, 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 proceedings in the Paris suburb of Versailles.
If convicted he faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of 70,000 euros ($81,000).
Four other people, including the two alleged masterminds of the blackmail attempt, are being tried alongside him.
‘I felt in danger’
The murky affair began when Valbuena, 37, handed his smartphone to Axel Angot, a man connected to footballing circles in the southern port city of Marseille where Valbuena had previously played, with a request to transfer its contents to a new device.
Angot came across sexually explicit footage on the phone which he and a friend, Mustapha Zouaoui, allegedly attempted to exploit, with the help of various intermediaries, including, according to prosecutors, Benzema.
Valbuena told the court he learned about the video from former teammate Djibril Cisse, who contacted him in May 2015 to tell him that compromising footage 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 previously been the victim of a similar blackmail attempt, then described to him the contents of the video, an extract of which Cisse had received via WhatsApp.
“I felt in danger, my first reflex was to file a criminal complaint," Valbuena, who wore a black shirt and grey trousers to court, said.
The former Marseille player, who agreed to work with an undercover police officer on the affair, said he also feared for his place in the national line-up.
“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."
After Cisse’s tip-off, Valbuena received a call from a first man accused of acting as a middle-man, Younes Houass.
Houass, who is charged in the case, told the court he did not discuss money with Valbuena.
He said the player “did not seem to understand" the gravity of his predicament and that he advised him to seek advice from someone he could trust, earning himself a reprimand from the presiding judge, who ordered him to “stop trying to make out you’re Mother Theresa".
‘Very heavy criminals’
With Houass struggling to make headway, Angot and Zouaoui then turned to one of Benzema’s old friends, Karim Zenati, who prosecutors say then enlisted Benzema’s help.
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 the 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 replied.
Benzema argues that the undercover police officer used dishonest methods to draw him into the affair.
He complained bitterly about being dropped from the national team, accusing France coach Didier Deschamps of a “racist" decision linked to his north African origins.
Since returning to the 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.
Deschamps said this month that “he’s no longer the same person, he’s matured".
While Benzema was rehabilitated, Valbuena was never again selected for the national team.
Speaking outside the courthouse, Zouaoui told reporters: “What I regret is that poor Mathieu also deserved to go to the World Cup (in 2018, which Benzema missed) and to be honest, because of us, he didn’t get to go."