Speaking publicly for the first time since becoming embroiled in a blackmail scandal, France striker Karim Benzema hit back at detractors in an emotional television interview on Wednesday, saying he has been "dragged through the mud'' and treated "like a scumbag'' after being held in custody.
Benzema has been charged with conspiracy to blackmail, relating to an extortion scam over a sex tape featuring his national teammate Mathieu Valbuena. He is suspected of having played an active role in pressuring Valbuena to deal with the blackmailers.
His international career is at risk, and while Benzema is keen to return to the France side along with Valbuena in time for the 2016 European Championship, he is adamant that he has been badly treated.
"There's nothing else to say. I'm being accused, dragged through the mud in every direction, like I was a criminal,'' Benzema said on Wednesday in an interview with broadcaster TF1. "These are horrible things.''
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls joined in the criticism of Benzema on Tuesday, saying he "has no place'' on the national team, days after Valbuena said he felt betrayed in a hard-hitting newspaper interview.
Benzema's involvement in the plot has not yet been fully determined, but investigators believe he was approached by a childhood friend, Karim Zenati, to act as an intermediary and convince Valbuena to deal directly with the blackmailers.
The 27-year-old Benzema, who denies any wrongdoing, was held overnight in custody at Versailles police station last month and then placed under judicial supervision, meaning he cannot meet with Valbuena during the investigation.
"I don't even know why I was taken into custody, why I was tarnished, why I was made to sleep in custody like a scumbag or I don't know what, "Benzema said, his voice bristling with indignation. "When it was me who asked to be questioned. I wasn't even summoned for questioning, it was me who asked.''
The investigation, centering on wiretap evidence, started when Valbuena took legal action after being contacted by a man claiming to be in possession of an incriminating sex tape.
In an interview with newspaper Le Monde last Friday, Valbuena spoke directly about Benzema's alleged role.
"I wouldn't even do that to my worst enemy,'' Valbuena told Le Monde. ``I can only feel very, very, very let down and now realize that my relationship with Karim wasn't as sincere as he may claim.''
Valbuena was particularly shocked by the way Benzema and Zenati spoke about him over the phone, with Benzema joking that the blackmailers would "pee on him'' and that Valbuena would get "eaten by the piranhas.''
Benzema acknowledged during Wednesday's interview that the tone of his conversation was uncalled for.
"The only thing that I regret about this is [how I spoke] on the telephone with my childhood friend (Zenati), to have taken it all lightly and to have laughed about it,'' Benzema said. "I can say sorry to (Valbuena) and to his family for that. We were on the telephone, a bit like actors, mucking around. We may laugh about things that are serious without taking them seriously. Football players in a changing room can relate to that, we don't say `My dear' when speaking to each other.''
Benzema lowered his head and mumbled `no' when asked if he knows the blackmailers in question.
"I'm proud of my friends and my family, I'll always be loyal,'' he said, appearing to refer to Zenati. "I've succeeded and set the example for a lot of young people.''
If the case continues to drag on until Euro 2016 starts on June 10, France coach Didier Deschamps won't be able to call both players into his squad for the tournament. France has only two friendly matches left before the event, against the Netherlands and Russia in late March, and the squad choice he makes for those games is likely to prove decisive.
Earlier, Benzema's lawyer Alain Jakubowicz said that he will file a law suit for breach of confidentiality of a judicial investigation after Le Monde newspaper published excerpts of Benzema's first examination in front of the investigating judge.
"This is absolutely unacceptable, this case has been turned upside down,'' Jakubowicz told RTL radio. "Mathieu Valbuena, who is a victim and an honest man, has been influenced in his declarations.''
Benzema backed that claim in the TF1 interview, saying "I think his [Valbuena's] brain was turned upside down with all the interviews put into place'' adding "we never spoke about money and he can tell you that.''
Le Monde published statements given by Benzema to the judge investigating the case after his night in custody. Benzema denied his implication in the plot and told the judge he was a victim of ``a big misunderstanding,''
Benzema said he just wanted to help Valbuena by letting him know about the sex tape and putting him in touch with Zenati, who is suspected of having played a central role and has also been handed preliminary charges.
"I heard there was a video about him that was doing the rounds, so I came to let him know about it. But when I came to tell him he already seemed to know,'' Benzema told TF1. "I told him I could help him, because I have a friend in Lyon (who) could get things sorted, for this or other problems.''
Benzema maintains that Zenati would have intervened for free to ensure sure the tape would be destroyed.
"To then hear that I was involved in blackmail, that I asked him for money, it drives me crazy, because it's nothing to do with it,'' Benzema said. "I don't need money and when I do a favor I expect nothing back.''