In normal circumstances, Karim Benzema would be at the top of the world right now. Fresh off a great season at Real Madrid that culminated in Champions League glory, he should be getting ready to lead France in the Euro 2016 tournament as the host nation’s best player. Instead, he’ll be watching it all from home.
For most everyone, the reasons for Benzema’s absence are clear: Because he is currently still facing legal action stemming from his role in the Mathieu Valbuena sex-tape/blackmail scandal, the French soccer federation announced a couple months ago that the striker would not be in the France team this summer.
It all seems pretty straightforward. Allegedly try to help a close childhood friend extort an international teammate over a possible sex video clandestinely taken from the player’s old cellphone, and you won’t get called up with the national team—at least not until the court has made a determination of innocence.
At least one prominent voice, however, hasn’t bought this version of events. All of this started last week when, in an interview with the Guardian, former Manchester United forward and France international Eric Cantona claimed rather pointedly that France manager Didier Deschamps might have decided not to call up Benzema and another Frenchman of North African descent, Hatem Ben Arfa, out of personal racial bias.
“Benzema is a great player. Ben Arfa is a great player,” Cantona told the Guardian. “But Deschamps, he has a really French name. Maybe he is the only one in France to have a truly French name. Nobody in his family mixed with anybody, you know. Like the Mormons in America.
“So I’m not surprised he used the situation of Benzema not to take him. Especially after Valls said he should not play for France. And Ben Arfa is maybe the best player in France today. But they have some origins. I am allowed to think about that.”
Asked if he was really suggesting that Deschamps – a former France team-mate who he also described as “a muppet” – had been guilty of discriminating against the pair, Cantona added: “Maybe no, but maybe yes. Why not? One thing is for sure – Benzema and Ben Arfa are two of the best players in France and will not play the European Championship. And for sure, Benzema and Ben Arfa, their origins are north African. So, the debate is open.”
This line of inquiry was explosive enough—and Deschamps has reportedly sought to bring a defamation suit against Cantona for the remarks—but coming from Cantona, who has a famously frosty relationship with the French national team, those who are in charge of it, and with Deschamps himself, it was hard to take all that seriously.
While only one member of France’s current Euro roster is of the same kind of North African descent as Benzema and Ben Arfa (that being Adil Rami, whose parents are Moroccan), in total 13 of the country’s 23-man roster has African ancestry. It’s hard to imagine a team that diverse having been constructed by racist hands.
Again, the evidence on hand appears to show that Benzema knowingly aided in a blackmail plot of a teammate. Though Benzema is certainly France’s best center forward, he’s not a Messi- or Ronaldo-quality player. His presence will be missed, but Olivier Giroud and Anthony Martial and Antoine Griezmann can fill in for him more than capably. France aren’t the favorites to win the whole thing even without Benzema for nothing. And for as great a season as Ben Arfa has had, it’s not all that odd that one year of greatness in a team built around his very specific talents wasn’t enough to convince Deschamps to bring a known headcase like Ben Arfa into the fold. Both decisions here make total sense without reaching for hidden conspiracies.
Today, though, Benzema has stoked the flames by backing Cantona’s statement that racism may have played a factor in his absence. Here’s what the striker told Spanish sports daily Marca, when asked specifically about Cantona’s racism charge:
Q: Do you think Deschamps or the French Football Federation president have taken the decision to leave you out of Euro 2016 under pressure, against their will? Do you think Didier is racist as Cantona suggested?
A: No, I don’t think so but he has bowed to pressure from a racist part of France. You have to know that an extremist party reached the second round in the last two elections in France. I don’t know, therefore, if the decision was only Didier’s because I have got on well with him and with the president. I don’t have a problem with anyone.
In fact, they try to make out that I create problems, go looking for stories and that I’m never happy but this isn’t true. I have more than 40 million fans on social media and they said that people don’t want me. That’s ridiculous.
There’s been a lot of pressure, of course, but that’s because some journalists have said things on television which aren’t true. I don’t know if the decision was Didier’s or the president’s but what I would like is that they make the decisions and don’t bow to pressure. And I think that’s what happened.
Having said that, I am with France and I wish them all the best.
Benzema went on to explain how much it hurt not being able to play in this home tournament even though he feels that “in sporting terms I have a place in the team.” And while he says that he’s not holding any grudges and would like to return to the national team one day, he still doesn’t understand the logic behind keeping him out:
Q: But do you think you will play for [France] again?
A: Of course. They’ve made up a rule so they can’t pick me, okay. But in sporting terms I don’t understand why because at a judicial level I haven’t been judged, I’m not guilty so we’ll have to wait to see and let justice be done. Now, I am available for selection, if they want me, but it isn’t a problem for me. I like football and playing for my country.
When asked about Valbuena particularly, Benzema hinted that he thinks the purported blackmail victim hasn’t been completely honest. As translated by Get French Football News:
“In this story, the only person who knows what happened, who knows the truth, is Valbuena. He played a role, he did not tell the truth, because if had have done so we would not be where we are today.
“I wanted to help him, nothing more, and the situation came back to bite me.”
This has obviously been big news in France. Many French political figures have weighed in on Benzema’s comments, with most writing off Benzema’s allegations and criticizing him for turning to the racism angle to excuse his own behavior that currently has him subject to criminal prosecution. Get French Football News also has translated parts of a report from RMC, where a couple members of the French team anonymously spoke out against the striker for his comments:
One member of the national team had the following to say:
“Why do that now, ten days before the Euros. It is us who will have to face it in the media. Today, we have a press conference. It is not Karim who will face the journalists. I do not understand the timing. He has put us in the shi**er.”
Another individual, who is cited as a source close to the French national team coaching staff, was incensed:
“It is unacceptable. It is unjustifiable. It’s selfish of him. To approach the discussion of racism is foolish and ridiculous. It’s funny for a racist to select 13 people of colour…”
It’s hard to see this resolving itself amicably, and even seems quite possible that Benzema might have just ended his international career. However, this is France, a country with a long history of explosive beefs between players, managers, and leadership where ultimately everyone kisses, makes up, and gets back on the pitch. It’s not looking good right now, though.