I get it. You see a headline like “Real Madrid Star Karim Benzema Charged In Sextape Blackmail Case” or “Transcript: Karim Benzema Helped Facilitate Blackmail Plot Against Teammate Over Sextape” and you aren’t quite moved. Sure, words like sex tape and blackmail seem juicy, but who is Karim Benzema to you, the typical American sports fan? You might know about Real Madrid—though even that is no guarantee—but why, you think, should some scandal taking place half a world away with protagonists you don’t know in a sport you don’t even like take up precious time out of your day?
The answer to that, as you might’ve surmised by now, is that this is the most batshit crazy thing happening in sports right now. Imagine Chris Bosh getting investigated in a blackmailing scheme targeting Tyson Chandler over a sex tape, and over the days following the gradual accretion of evidence leading you from “Hold up, there’s no way he actually did this, right?” to “Holy shit, he actually probably did this!?!”
A STAR PLAYER WAS BEING BLACKMAILED AFTER SOME SHADY CHARACTERS STOLE A SEX TAPE FROM HIM! MULTIPLE OTHER STARS HAVE BEEN ARRESTED FOR KNOWING ABOUT IT! AND IT NOW LOOKS LIKE THE MOST FAMOUS ONE OF ALL WAS DIRECTLY INVOLVED IN THE EXTORTION PLOT!!! Do you not see why this is huge?!
Okay, okay, I get it. Sort of. So this Benzema guy is a big deal?
Yes. That Chris Bosh comparison wasn’t a toss-off.
Benzema has been the starting Real Madrid striker for seven years now. (I know this is supposed to be a remedial, Non-Soccer Fan’s Guide To The Benzema Scandal, but I hope when I say “striker” you know that means “chief goal-getter,” and with goals being the object of the game, that’s like the highest profile position in the game. If you didn’t know that, maybe it really is best if you stop reading now.) Real Madrid are the biggest, most famous club in the world, and because of that are usually one of its best, too. He is an extremely good player on the most famous club team, is still in his prime at only 27 years old, and is also one of the biggest stars for the France national team. Suffice to say, Benzema’s name is immediately recognizable to anyone with anything above the most cursory of understandings of European soccer.
So he’s famous.
That’s what I’m saying, yes. Not only is he a big deal in the game itself, he’s also (and here the Bosh comparison unravels) known as sort of a rakish bad boy off of it. He’s handsome, drives expensive, fancy cars, wears expensive, fancy clothes, parties with beautiful women, and is a somewhat regular figure in the gossip pages for his antics.
Uh, yeah. That’s the best way I can think of to encapsulate the entirety of his off-field notoriety.
For instance, his most recent forays in the tabloids (before the sex tape stuff, obviously) came from his rumored relationship with Rihanna. This summer, he was spotted around town with Rihanna for a good while, after the two first got to know each other when she admitted her crush on him during the 2014 World Cup. (She was the World Cup Twitter MVT.) While the relationship didn’t end up working out for the two of them, it did inspire this typically spectacular Media Takeout headline: “Rihanna Must Feel Like SUCH A DUMMY . . . Her SOCCER PLAYER Boyfriend . . . Was Spotted Taking Some OTHER LITE SKINNED GIRL Home From The Club Last Night!! (Why Can’t She KEEP A MAN??)”
While Benzema’s behavior is usually of the benevolent playboy type, there are also seedier stories linked to him. For instance, he and a few other big-time French soccer players were embroiled in a prostitution scandal back in 2010. Benzema’s part involved him having sex with a prostitute who was, at the time, either 16 or 17 years old. The age of sexual consent in France is 15 and prostitution itself is legal, but to engage in sex work the participant must be over 18. Benzema admitted to sleeping with the prostitute—the now-famous Zahia Dehar—but claimed that he did not know she was underage. Prosecutors eventually dropped the charges.
More sensationally, just after the blackmail case came to light, he was linked to a massive international drug trafficking case. Apparently two of the men being investigated for that had ties to Benzema. Benzema’s alleged involvement in this stuff is a lot more tenuous than the the other incidents surrounding him, but the point is that as crazy as it sounds, it’s not all that shocking that Benzema’s name comes up in ridiculous-sounding stories.
What about that other guy, Valbuena? Is he a big star?
Yeah, but not quite on the Benzema scale. In France, where he’s spent most of his career, he’s regarded as one of the best players in the domestic league. He’s also a regular with the national team, and the exposure from that side of his game is mainly why he’s known by most all committed soccer fans. Again, he’s like Tyson Chandler: if you follow the NBA you definitely know who he is; if you don’t, you might not.
So what exactly happened with this sex tape ordeal?
The public’s introduction to the case came when Djibril Cissé, a now-retired soccer player who also played with Valbuena and Benzema in the national team was detained by police and questioned in relation to the plot. That’s when we learned that 1) there was a sex tape going around that depicted Valbuena having intercourse with a woman (it wasn’t immediately clear if it was his wife or another woman); 2) the people who had acquired the tape were shaking down the video’s star for money; and 3) Valbuena had contacted the police to deal with it.
We can now infer that Cissé was detained because, as Valbuena told Benzema at one point, Cissé was the first player to approach Valbuena about the situation. The retired
defender forward had gone through a similar situation himself earlier; approached by blackmailers who had procured a sex tape of his, Cissé paid them off, which prevented the tape from ever leaking. However, Cissé was soon released when police were satisfied that he had nothing to do with the blackmailing scheme.
A little while later, Benzema was also arrested. I noticed the story back when Cissé became a part of it, and remembering how that was resolved, I figured that Benzema’s situation would be dealt with the same way: police would talk to him for a while, he would show them that he wasn’t involved, and he would be released in a matter of hours.
Instead, Benzema was kept overnight for extended questioning. This felt fishy, but still, the sanest explanation was that the cops were serious about checking out his story and wanted to get down everything the Real Madrid star knew before ultimately letting him go. The next morning, police released Benzema, but not until after they’d charged him with “complicity in an attempted extortion” and set a bail price. That was the first time I had to seriously entertain the idea that Benzema might’ve really been in on this.
As the days passed, the French media received more and more information about the course of the case. First they reported that Benzema did in fact know one of the blackmailers personally. Then they said Benzema was friends with one of the blackmailers and had actually intervened on his pal’s behalf to get Valbuena to pay. Benzema denied all these stories and painted an alternative picture of him as a concerned friend who was only trying to help Valbuena navigate a tough situation.
The most important piece of evidence we’ve seen so far is this phone call transcript. Not long after blackmailers alerted Valbuena to the tape and made their demands, the player went to the police. From there, the cops discovered who had been in contact with him and put them under surveillance, one aspect of which involved phone taps. One recorded conversation involved a blackmail suspect and Benzema. It is pretty bad.
That call covered Benzema’s attempt, at his interlocutor’s behest, to talk Valbuena into meeting up with the blackmailer and paying him to be done with the situation for good. Benzema does not at all come off well and instead sounds more like a part-time con man trying to coax money out of one friend’s pocket and into another buddy’s wallet for shits and giggles if not malice. Seriously, read it. It’s wild.
So where do we go from here?
Well, that’s what makes this so damn riveting. Who knows?! Arguably the single biggest French soccer star has already been arrested and charged. Benzema’s people have (justifiably) been dismayed at all the leaks and still contend that Benzema is innocent. Is there exculpatory info out there that will make him look better? Maybe. Are there more recorded phone calls that make him look worse? Seems possible!
How will Valbuena respond assuming he buys into the idea that Benzema was trying to screw him over? (To this point, Valbuena has contended that he and Benzema have been friends for a long time and that he doesn’t hold any animosity towards him. He even changed his facebook picture to one depicting the two men together as a show of support. However, this could all change if he begins doubting Benzema’s intentions.)
How will the national team respond? Right now the courts have mandated Benzema to avoid all contact with Valbuena, and while they both would normally be automatic members of the squad, they are both currently injured and not with the team during the current international break. Will this be cleared up before next summer’s huge Euro 2016 tournament? If not, will the coach have to choose between one or the other?
The possibilities are endless here, and we’re giddy with excitement anticipating where they lead. And you should be too.
Photo via AP