Benzema says race, not sex-tape scandal, reason for his EURO 2016 exclusion
PARIS (AP) Karim Benzema has accused Didier Deschamps of giving in to pressure from racists when the France coach decided not to include him in the squad for the European Championship.
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In an interview with Spanish sports newspaper Marca published Wednesday, Benzema said he does not believe that Deschamps is a racist, but that he “bowed to the pressure of a racist part of France.”
Deschamps has been a long-time supporter of Benzema, who has been suspended from the national team because of his involvement in an extortion scam over a sex tape involving France teammate Mathieu Valbuena.
“I would have liked to play for my country, but unfortunately that’s impossible,” said Benzema, who is of Algerian descent. “Missing the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was a setback, but the European Championship at home is even harder. This is one of the biggest disappointments I have had, without a doubt.”
This latest off-the-field controversy is unlikely to improve Benzema’s already tarnished image in his own country. France’s junior minister for sports, Thierry Braillard, said on Twitter that Benzema’s statement is “unjustified and unacceptable. Total support to FFF (French football federation) and Didier Deschamps.”
Benzema’s comments echoed those of former France international Eric Cantona, who said last week that Deschamps might have left out Benzema and Nice winger Hatem Ben Arfa on racial grounds.
Ben Arfa - whose father is a former Tunisia international - scored 17 goals in 33 French league matches this season but was not selected in Deschamps’ group of players for the tournament starting in France on June 10.
Deschamps had many offensive options at his disposal and picked six attacking players, including Antoine Griezmann, Dimitri Payet, Anthony Martial, Kingsley Coman, Olivier Giroud and Andre-Pierre Gignac.
“Benzema is a great player. Ben Arfa is a great player,” Cantona told the Guardian newspaper. “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. And Ben Arfa is maybe the best player in France today. But they have some origins. I am allowed to think about that.”
Deschamps’ lawyer said he will sue Cantona for his comments.
Benzema, who won the Champions League with Real Madrid last week, said the political context in France, where the far right has been gaining political support over the past five years, played against him.
France’s far right, anti-immigrant National Front is increasingly popular under leader Marine Le Pen, who has brought it toward the political mainstream - and who is expected to make it into the presidential election runoff next year. The party was the top vote-getter in regional and European elections last year, but maneuvering by traditional parties kept it from winning any governorships, and may keep Le Pen from the presidency.
In addition to its core anti-immigration message, the party rails against what it calls the “Islamization” of France and wants France out of the euro and the European Union - though one of its major pulpits is the European Parliament, where it’s part of a far right bloc.
“You have to know that in France the extremist party reached the second round in the last two elections,” Benzema said.
Earlier this year, French football federation president Noel Le Graet spoke of his shock at the amount of racist hate mail he received telling him not to select Benzema.
Speaking to reporters from Austria, where the France squad is preparing for Euro 2016, Le Graet insisted Benzema has not been suspended for life.
“We’ll do without him during Euro 2016, then we’ll see,” Le Graet said. “I like him and I did not change my mind. He got a bit carried away, I’d rather he were a bit more friendly, but I won’t make further comment on the issue.”
Benzema, who has 27 goals in 81 international matches, also missed the 2010 World Cup. Former France coach Raymond Domenech left him out of his squad in the wake of another scandal, when Benzema and teammate Franck Ribery were handed preliminary charges for soliciting an underage prostitute. Both were acquitted.
“France is going to realize that it has been unfair to me,” Benzema said.