By JOHN LEICESTER
VERSAILLES, France (AP) — The trial of French soccer player Karim Benzema and four others began Wednesday outside Paris, without the Real Madrid forward in attendance.
Benzema, who played in Kyiv on Tuesday against Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League, is accused of being involved in an attempt in 2015 to blackmail France teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape.
Benzema’s legal team told the court in Versailles that his obligations as a player made it “impossible” for him to attend the first day of the trial, which is scheduled to last through Friday.
Valbuena was in court on Wednesday. He testified that Benzema spoke to him about the sex tape, telling him “there’s a video, it’s hot,” when they were together at France’s Clairefontaine training camp in October 2015. Benzema also said that he had a good friend who could help and “can solve your problem,” Valbuena testified.
Although Benzema “never spoke to me about money,” Valbuena said he understood that he would have to pay for the friend’s assistance.
“It wasn’t for football tickets. That’s never done for free,” Valbuena testified. He said the conversation left him “really frightened.”
In a subsequent phone call wiretapped by police, Benzema then talked about the conversation with his friend Karim Zenati. The two men had known each other since childhood. When Zenati was released from prison in 2013, following robbery and drug convictions, Benzema hired him as an assistant.
In the wiretapped call, which was played in court, the pair chuckled about Benzema’s talk with Valbuena. Benzema said that he had told Valbuena that “if you want the video to be destroyed,” he should contact Zenati, without involving police, lawyers or others.
“I gave my word that there are no copies,” Benzema said in the call.
Benzema is accused of complicity in attempted blackmail, a charge punishable by up to five years in prison. He has denied wrongdoing.
Zenati and three other defendants are charged with attempted blackmail, also punishable with five years imprisonment. Unlike Benzema, they were all in court.
They included Axel Angot, who first got hold of the sex tape in 2014.
In court, Angot described himself as an odd-job man for soccer players, assisting with their computers, communications and other needs. He said players paid him for help, and that he once got 3,500 euros ($4,000) from a player just for delivering a USB cable to him in Croatia.
“They are soccer players. I have seen them spend 50,000 euros in a front of me in seconds,” Angot said.
Angot said the idea of exploiting the sex tape came in 2015, to pay off a debt of 25,000 euros ($29,000) that he owed to another player for some luxury watches. He said his thinking had been that a thankful Valbuena would pay him “a recompense” if he helped make the video go away.
“I am not Bill Gates but I know my way around computers,” Angot said. “The main goal of this affair was to erase this debt.”
During his testimony, Angot at first denied that his intention had been to blackmail Valbuena but later acknowledged that the scheme was “indirectly the same thing.”
He apologized to Valbuena.
“I’m sorry. But that’s of no value,” he said.
Other defendants denied intent to blackmail. On his way into the hearing, Mustapha Zouaoui told reporters that Angot had given him the video and “we laughed about it” and that he then shared it with others.
“A lot of players from France’s team saw it,” Zouaoui said. “But there hasn’t been any blackmail. We didn’t ask for money. There was no request for money.”
In court, Zouaoui said “the intention wasn’t to make him bleed” but rather to spare Valbuena the indignity of the tape being made public and then be rewarded for that help.
Another of the alleged blackmailers, Younes Houass, testified that he spoke to Valbuena about the video in June 2015, when the player was at Clairefontaine.
After that call, Valbuena filed a police complaint and detectives got to work, identifying defendants and wiretapping calls.
Benzema and Zenati were both handed preliminary charges in November 2015, joining Angot, Zouaoui and Houass under formal investigation.
Benzema was then dropped from France’s national team by coach Didier Deschamps, missing the 2016 European Championship and the 2018 World Cup, which was won by France.
Deschamps recalled Benzema in May ahead of the delayed Euro 2020 tournament and has fielded him 11 times in 2021.
Valbuena, now 37, hasn’t played for France since Oct. 11, 2015, when he came on as a substitute in a friendly match against Denmark.
He said the alleged blackmail attempt hurt him and his career.
“Since this affair, I never set foot again in the France team.”
Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema celebrates after scoring his side’s fifth goal during the Champions League group D soccer match between Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Madrid at the Olympiyskiy stadium in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)