The verdict lasted barely half an hour, a little longer than the conversation that turned this seedy case of sex tapes and blackmail into a six-year scandal that has stained the fabric of French football.
Shortly after 10am on Wednesday, judge Christophe Morgan rose from his seat and slipped out the back door of Courtroom C in Versailles. His work was done.
Neither Karim Benzema nor Mathieu Valbuena were in the room. Neither can yet shake off a case that has bound them since 2015. On Wednesday, Benzema was 1,500 miles away, scoring for Real Madrid in their 3-0 Champions League victory over Sheriff, a few hours into a 12-month suspended prison sentence for his role in the attempted blackmail of a former France team-mate.
The judge handed down a €75,000 fine and ordered Benzema to pay €80,000 towards Valbuena’s legal fees and €1 in damages to the French Football Federation.
The guilty verdict only marks the start of another chapter of 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 an attempt to blackmail fellow player Mathieu Valbuena
Investigators alleged that Benzema (right) encouraged Valbuena (left) to pay a group of alleged blackmailers in order to keep a sexually explicit tape out of the public eye
TV crews had begun to gather outside the courthouse an hour before the courtroom rose to hear all five defendants condemned. In the absence of their client, Benzema’s legal team — Sylvain Cormier and Antoine Vey — were courted like celebrities by proxy.
Vey, in particular, lapped up the attention as he strolled through the flashing cameras en route to court. When they re-emerged, faced by a wall of microphones and a pack of reporters, the mood had shifted. The lawyers lamented the verdict and announced that Benzema would appeal.
‘It is a harsh, unfair sentence, we are stunned by this judgment,’ Cormier said. ‘Karim Benzema will be exonerated because he has nothing to be ashamed of.’
Benzema, 33, missed both the trial and this verdict for ‘professional reasons’. His lawyers believe that counted against him and suggested he would turn up 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 holds the key to this case.
In late 2015, Benzema led the line for both Madrid and France. Valbuena, then at Lyon, had made himself a regular under Didier Deschamps too.
With Euro 2016 — a home tournament — on the horizon, the pair were regulars at Clairefontaine, the national football centre, 20 miles further south west of Paris.
Under the surface, trouble was brewing. A sex tape had been found on Valbuena’s phone and an anonymous caller threatened to release the footage if he did not pay. Through a childhood friend, Benzema became a go-between. On October 6 the striker told Valbuena he knew someone who could help him out of the sticky situation.
‘Be careful, Math, these are very, very heavy criminals,’ Benzema warned in a conversation that reportedly lasted around 25 minutes.
Benzema’s lawyers insisted he was looking out for a team-mate. Prosecutors argued he was part of a plot that dates back to July 2014, when Axel Angot, a fixer for players at 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 sourced luxury items for footballers and was identified as ‘the brain’ behind the plan.
Benzema’s lawyer 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 they were hoping to gain up to €150,000. Zouaoui turned to Karim Zenati, a convicted armed robber and lifelong friend of Benzema. The judge said that rather than money, it was loyalty to Zenati, forged on the streets on Bron — a rough suburb of Lyon — that lured Benzema into this case.
Soon, the suspects were being monitored. Undercover police pretended to be friends of Valbuena.
A month after speaking with Valbuena, Benzema was in custody accused of complicity in attempted blackmail. It took nearly six years for the case to come to court. For most of that time, Benzema was in international exile. He missed Euro 2016. He missed France’s victory at the 2018 World Cup. Only earlier this year was he 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 shred of vindication comes too late. He has not played for France since five days after speaking to Benzema.
Now 37, the Olympiacos midfielder can never make up lost time. Both will struggle to shake the debris of this case.
Valbuena turned up to the first two days of last month’s trial, where he was mocked and details of his private life were broadcast to the court.
His mother and sister had to listen as Zouaoui branded Valbuena’s home a ‘shagodrome’, where men openly slept with a revolving horde of women.
Benzema (left) said he knew someone who could help ‘manage’ the possible publication of Valbuena (right) sex-tape
The judge said Benzema’s motive was not money but his unwavering bond with his childhood friend Karim Zenati (pictured)
His international prospects lay in tatters and his club career in France crumbled years ago too, as the scandal weighed heavily on him.
He left his homeland in 2017 in search of ‘somewhere where I would be judged only on my football’. He missed yesterday’s verdict to prepare for Thursday night’s Europa League clash with Fenerbahce.
None of the accused turned up, either. Benzema faced a maximum sentence of five years, the prosecution wanted 10 months suspended. The judge felt he deserved more.
Summarising his 74-page verdict, Morgan said Benzema ‘falsely presented himself as a friend wishing to help his team-mate’ and had instead, ‘using his professional stature’, tried ‘to convince Valbuena to submit to blackmail’.
Benzema (left) has been allowed to play for France again but Valbuena’s career there is over
Valbuena, who turned up for the trial, is now 37 and playing for Greek side Olympiacos
A recorded phone call between Benzema and Zenati following the fateful conversation, played in court, led the judge to claim there was ‘a certain excitement’ to 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 be able to erase the damage done by his exclusion from the France team.’
Unfortunately, this is not case closed, either.
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