When we last checked in on the most insane scandal going on in sports, the big news was that a transcript of a phone call between Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema and a good friend of his strongly suggested 1) that the good friend was trying to blackmail Lyon midfielder Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape, and 2) that Benzema was trying to help his buddy with the scheme. A lot has come out since then, and it’s crazy.
Valbuena recently made his first public remarks to French paper Le Monde, in which he explained the origins of the case, why he’s confident that Benzema was indeed trying to screw him over, his shock and disappointment that a man he considered a friend would do him like this, his doubts about whether this sex tape is even really out there, and how yet another French international—Samir Nasri—is tangentially implicated in the blackmailing scheme. He also expressed his worries about his future position with the national team. Today, Le Monde has acquired the transcript of Benzema’s judicial hearing where he was first charged. In no way does he come across as honest and innocent.
In the interview with Le Monde, Valbuena finally gave his side of the story and filled in some gaps about how this all started. To his understanding, it all dates back to the summer of 2014. Around that time, he had just purchased a new cellphone and wanted to transfer everything from his old one to his new one.
For help with this, he solicited the help of Axel Angot, a sort of assistant-type who was a known soccer player hanger-on. Angot had established himself as the designated IT guy for many Marseille players. Valbuena had even used his services before for a similar project.
Anyway, the theory is that when Angot had possession of Valbuena’s phone, he saw a video the player filmed when having sex with his girlfriend, and that this is what set the whole thing in motion. At the time, though, Angot fulfilled his assignment, Valbuena’s new phone was set up, and that was that.
It wasn’t until May of 2015 that Valbuena heard about the possibility that a sex tape was out there. The first one to contact him was his former international teammate Djibril Cissé. From his interview:
I got a call from Djibril Cissé, who said: “Mat, there is something about you, there’s a video.” He added: “It may be a bluff, because I did not see anything.” Then he added: “Mat, if you’re strong, there is no problem, but I have been in a situation like that, I was not well.” But Djibril [who was interviewed without being charged in this case] was just warning me as a favor.
But Djibril Cissé did not tell you where it came from?
No, because he did not know, he said he got it from a friend.
At that point, Valbuena still didn’t know if anything would come from this. Then, a month later, he got a call from an unlisted number. At first he didn’t answer, not knowing who it was, but the person kept calling him back. Thinking it might be important, he finally picked up:
And there, I got some guy who wouldn’t introduce himself and said he had a video of me, that we have to meet and that I need to send a trusted man to Dubai ... An insane trick! Right away, I told myself that I must inform Momo [Mohamed Sanhadji, the French national team’s head of security], so I bought time on the phone until I found Momo! And when at last I found him, I put the phone on speaker mode for him to listen in. Momo, who is a police officer, immediately understood what it was.
Sanhadji helped Valbuena get in contact with the local police department, who recognized the nascent extortion plot. As they monitored the situation, the same person Valbuena spoke with on the phone earlier kept calling and calling him. During one conversation, Valbuena asked the man on the phone to send him any kind of evidence—a screenshot, a short clip, whatever—to confirm that he really had possession of the tape. The caller never obliged.
Setting the Trap
Tired of trying to navigate through all this personally, Valbuena asked the cops if they could handle it for him. The police came up with a solution. The next time he spoke to the mysterious caller, Valbuena told him he didn’t have time to deal with this stuff himself, and would prefer to use an intermediary, Lukas, who was actually a police officer. After that, Lukas and the rest of the officers took over the day-to-day interactions with the blackmailer, and Valbuena was free to concentrate on soccer.
For a long time, Valbuena’s only involvement was the odd update from police letting him know how the investigation was going. One particular update, in late October, was a little different:
On Sunday, October 4th, I had an appointment with the officer in charge of the investigation to take stock. As he knew that the next day I was joining up with the national team, he warned me: “If anyone comes to you to talk about this, directly or indirectly, do not be surprised ...”
He did not tell you more?
No! I realized after the fact that in the meantime he had been eavesdropping on the conversations that Karim [Benzema] appeared in. Then on Monday at Clairefontaine, Karim thought we should talk. But we did not find the time. And then finally, I met him in his room the next day.
What followed was the conversation Benzema later relayed to his friend, suspected blackmailer Karim Zenati, that was intercepted in a wiretap and eventually leaked to the media. Valbuena immediately understood, without knowing the particulars yet, that this was suspicious:
How did the conversation go?
He told me about a video. Immediately I thought of what the officer said on Sunday. I said, “Fuck, still ...” Then he asked me to meet a friend he described as very reliable, very serious, in whom he had complete confidence, so everything would suit me. Well, still, I’m not stupid! I was skeptical to say the least. Even if that were true, at first I said, “Thanks for telling me,” I doubted that if he wanted me to meet someone, it was for nothing. The way he brought this up, it was obvious that, indirectly, getting me to see his friend meant paying this person to destroy the video.
[ ... ]
I played along, I told him, I would like to pay for my freedom, but we all know that if I pay, it will never end, there will always be copies, etc. And he said: “Do not worry, I have complete confidence in my friend, there will not be any more copies, they will be destroyed ...” He kept insisting that I meet his friend.
Valbuena’s account of the conversation was very similar to the one Benzema gave to Zenati. Benzema reiterated that they were dealing with some “big-time thugs” and that, as Cissé found out, paying off these guys can be an effective strategy of keeping it under wraps for good. While Benzema kept trying to appear casual—repeating that if Valbuena didn’t want to play ball with the blackmailers and instead preferred to take his chances, it was no sweat to Benzema—he also kept trying to get Valbuena in contact with Zenati.
Valbuena declined the offer and that was that. He didn’t hear from Benzema again until after the rumors of the striker’s involvement hit the papers. When Valbuena was away for a Champions League match in Russia, Benzema got in touch with Valbuena through an intermediary.
Valbuena sounds more disappointed than anything else. He says Benzema’s behavior showed “a lack of respect.”
“Even to my worst enemy,” he said, “I would never do this.”
Another Player Involved?
Shockingly, Benzema might not have been the only player trying to horn in on the racket. While police and Valbuena believe that Cissé truly was only being helpful, Samir Nasri—with whom Valbuena has had a long-standing beef—also came up in the investigation as a potential intermediary between Valbuena and the blackmailers:
According to our information, the evidence revealed that Samir Nasri had offered to act as intermediary in place of Benzema?
Yes, pfff. This is someone who is no longer with the national team. My relationship with Nasri has always been difficult. Now, nothing surprises me. When you’re inside a racketeering plot and you find these names, it’s almost like you’re in a madhouse.
Just when you thought this couldn’t get crazier! Yes, Nasri’s name really did pop up in this blackmail investigation. The aforementioned Angot and a man named Mustapha Zouaoui—who was known to hang around Marseilles players—appear to be the two crooks at the heart of all this. It was by tapping these guys’ phones that police learned all the elements of the scheme.
In one conversation, when the two were looking for a middleman to try to convince Valbuena to cut a deal with them, they bring up the possibility of getting Nasri. From L’Équipe:
September 16 at 7:54 p.m., according to the information from Le Monde, police intercepted a conversation in which Mustapha Zouaoui and Axel Angot (characters that gather in the shadow of footballers, including at Marseilles) that a certain “Samir” would have offered his services, before discussing the strained relations between the two former Marseille players.
-Zouaoui: “They don’t love each other, and I’m afraid the other says he is a son bitch who wants to fuck him over. [ ... ] It is much easier for a guy who can sit and talk with him to call him.”
-Angot: “I do not care, as long as he pays.”
-Zouaoui: “Samir said, ‘I can call him this evening, if you want’ ...”
Since the surnames of Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema were never mentioned over the phone, the police became suspicious and questioned Angot while he was in custody. There, he confirmed “that he spoke of Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema”.
For his part, Nasri has denied having any involvement. In an interview with RMC Sport, he explained that while he had known about the sex tape since August or September, and that he knew both Zouaoui (a childhood friend) and Angot (in his role as Marseille’s go-to IT guy), he hadn’t spoken to either of them in years and wasn’t involved in this at all. He asked a pretty convincing question—if police really thought he was involved, why hadn’t he even been questioned yet?—and went on to basically say that Valbuena should keep his name out of his mouth.
The two former Marseille teammates, he said, “Have never been friends. Never will be.”
Valbuena’s chief concern now is his standing with the national team. He didn’t like being left out of this last round of international friendlies, but said he spoke to the manager and eventually understood the coach’s decision to leave him out now when the situation was so fresh.
However, he also recognizes that things are not as simple as they should be. Benzema is one of France’s best players, much more integral to the national team than Valbuena. Thus Valbuena worries that, because of what has gone on, the team might choose to side with Benzema and not call up Valbuena so that the France set-up is as frictionless as possible for their star striker.
Le Monde brought up this possibility with him. He tried to brush off, but he obviously took the possibility seriously enough to go out of his way and state that he wouldn’t be opposed to potentially playing alongside Benzema—THE GUY WHO TRIED TO HELP HIM GET BLACKMAILED OVER A SEX TAPE—in the future:
Can you imagine playing together with Benzema if he returns for France?
Personally, I never had a problem playing with Karim, on the contrary. No worries. I have played with people I’m not on good terms with, like at Marseille. For me, in the France team, the group comes first, before individuality, egos.
So you would not refuse to play with Benzema?
I try to separate things between the legal side and the sporting side. The conclusions of the legal system are not my responsibility. So I could play with him again. After this he won’t be my best friend, of course.
Benzema’s Problems Grow
Today has given more bad news to Benzema. It was reported yesterday that he would finally share his version of events in a televised interview on French channel TF1 tonight. Instead of today being a chance for him to potentially save some face, though, Le Monde released another bombshell: his testimony to the judge that charged him.
Naturally, he claimed this was just a big fat misunderstanding. As translated by AS English:
Judge: What do you make of the accusations made against you?
KB: I think it’s been a big misunderstanding – all of it. Initially, I wanted to tell him about something and help him. That is what I was doing. It concerned someone who I knew from the France national side, a friend. I wanted him to know about this issue and talk to him about it and to tell him that something similar had happened to me and to see what he thought about it.
The judge asked Benzema a series of questions trying to discern if it really was him on the calls the police had tapped, which he tacitly owned up to by confirming his phone number and saying that he’s the only one who uses it. He then said that Zenati is not only his best friend, he’s also on Benzema’s payroll. (He couldn’t remember what title Zenati had, so it’s probably one of those fake “assistant” or “manager” gigs athletes often hook their old buddies up with.)
Benzema’s Story Doesn’t Hold Up
Benzema’s explanation for how he heard about the sex tape didn’t make much sense:
Judge: How did you know about the existence of an intimate video involving Mister Valbuena?
KB: I don’t remember the exact date but it was just before France’s game against Armenia (8th October). It was just before Clairefontaine. It would have been three weeks before. I was in Madrid having lunch with Karim Zenati. A person came to give me a Louis Vuitton bag and told me about a video involving Mathieu Valbuena.
Judge: Did you know the individual who gave you the Louis Vuitton bag?
KB: No, I didn’t know him. Yesterday, I was shown a photograph and I recognized him but I don’t remember his name.
KB: He gave me the bag, sat down and said hello, but I wasn’t really listening, I don’t know. He said that there was a video about Mathieu Valbuena, a steamy video. And then, at that moment, I told him: ‘Stop, I don’t want to hear about it’. That person stayed there, we continued eating and later we left...
Judge: Did this person have lunch with you?
KB: Yes, he ate.
Judge: How can you explain that while you were having lunch in Madrid with one of your friends, someone came up to give you a present and then started to talk about something strange? What made you invite this person to join you for lunch?
KB: I didn’t invite him, he invited himself, he knew Karim (Djaziri). After that, I didn’t have any more contact with that person, it was the only time I saw him.
The judge’s questioning revealed more and more inconsistencies in Benzema’s stories:
Judge: When Mister Valbuena asked whether his tattoos could be seen in the video, you replied [citing the transcript of the conversation between Benzema and Zenati], ‘you can see everything, really big’; what do you have to say?
KB: I was referring to that you could see his body. It was Karim who told me about the video, he told me about a ‘steamy’ video with Mathieu, so I presumed that you could see everything.
[ ... ]
Judge: How can you say that there is only one copy of the video, if the only time you heard about the video was from someone you didn’t know?
KB: Before joining up with the France squad, I spoke to Karim. It was after seeing Karim, who told me that there was a video with him [Valbuena], that I spoke to Mathieu.
Judge: You told Mr. Valbuena: ‘I’m telling you seriously, I’ve seen the video myself’. Have you seen the video?
KB: No, no I haven’t seen it.
Judge: Then why did you say you had?
KB: Frankly I don’t know why I say that. I haven’t seen the video. As Karim told me it was about a real video, it was serious and that’s what I told Mathieu. I conjured a mental image from what Karim (Zenati) told me, because I trusted him and he is my best friend.
Judge: Do you think Karim Zenati saw the video?
KB: I think he did see it because he told me about the details.
Judge: What kind of details?
KB: That it was a porn video, sexual, that you could see things well and it was recorded.
Judge: You repeat: ‘He told me, the video, where did you see it? How long ago did you see it? Later, he asked me more questions, but it was like… I saw him swallowing saliva, he started to swallow saliva two, three times. [Mr. Zenati heard laughing]’. What do you have to say about that?
KB: As I said before, when we are chatting on the phone, we joke about. This is uncomfortable, very uncomfortable. I don’t know why we laughed in that way, because it’s not right. I didn’t see the video. I told him that I had seen it but it’s not true. I had a mental image in my mind and that’s all.
So much of this flies in the face of the evidence on hand, the transcript of the previously released call between Benzema and Zenati, and even common sense. Even small things that he’s admitted to—lying about seeing the video, claiming to earnestly believe that Zenati wouldn’t receive any money for brokering the deal to destroy the video, joking over the phone with Zenati about Valbuena’s reactions and how that conversation sounded so much like Benzema was doing Zenati a favor, the ridiculous story of a complete stranger coming up to him at lunch just to tell him about the video—don’t make any sense unless Benzema is trying to cover his ass after getting caught. It all stinks to high heaven.
Benzema’s TV appearance today didn’t do much to alter this perception, either. There, he complained about his treatment in the media, saying “I am being accused, I am being dragged through the mud in every direction, as if I was a criminal. It is horrible.” Well, generally speaking, you get treated like a criminal when you’ve been acting like one.
The website Get French Football News has translated Benzema’s statement. Here’s the clearest distillation of his version of events:
What happened, it is simple. I hear that there is a video of him. I come to let him know about it but he already seemed to know about it. I told him that I could help him because I have a friend in Lyon. He can sort it out, it is Karim Zenati. We spoke about that. I spoke with him. If he had warned his family, that was the most important thing.
When I hear that I blackmailed, that I asked for money, it drives me crazy, it has nothing to do with that. I have done well in life and for a long time too. I do not need to get more money. When I do a favour for someone, I am not expecting money. We never spoke about money or whatever it might be. I said to him two or three times that because my friend is in Lyon he might be able sort things out.
Yeah, no. You did that shit, man.
He did admit to one regret, though:
On his vulgar language used on the phone to Mr Zenati…
I can understand, yes (that is not appropriate), after all that. When I see him in the evening (Valbuena), he is not disappointed, quite the opposite. He said to me: “thanks brother for warning me”. You can ask him that. The only thing that I regret, is on the phone with my friend, to have spoke in a joking manner.
I apologise to him and his family. On the phone we were fooling around. A word like that (Tarlouze, which essentially means fa**ot), all the players can understand it. In the dressing room we do not call each other “my dear”. It was not thought through, it came out like that.
The weirdest story in sports keeps getting weirder.
Photo via Getty