The verdict lasted little more than half an hour, barely longer than the conversation that turned this seedy case of sex-tapes and suspected blackmail into a six-year scandal that has stained the fabric of French football.
Shortly after 10am on Wednesday, judge Christophe Morgan rose from his seat and slipped out the back door of Courtroom C in Versailles. His work was done.
Neither Karim Benzema nor Mathieu Valbuena were in the room. Neither can yet rid themselves a case that has bound them together since 2015.
By the time Real Madrid face Sheriff on Wednesday evening, Benzema will be a few hours into a one year, suspended prison sentence for his role in the attempted blackmail of his former France team-mate.
The judge handed down the highest financial penalty, a €75,000 fine. Alas, the guilty verdict only marks the start of another chapter of this sordid tale.
Real Madrid star Karim Benzema (pictured) has been found guilty of complicity in an attempt to blackmail fellow player Mathieu Valbuena
Investigators alleged that Benzema (right) encouraged Valbuena (left) to pay a group of alleged blackmailers in order to keep a sexually explicit tape out of the public eye
Minutes after their client’s fate was sealed, Benzema’s lawyers emerged into a media scrum.
Faced by the flash of cameras, a cluster of microphones and a pack of reporters – some crouched on their haunches – they lamented the verdict. They confirmed Benzema would appeal.
‘It is a harsh, unfair sentence. We are stunned by this judgment,’ Sylvain Cormier said. ‘Karim Benzema will be exonerated because he has nothing to be ashamed of.’
They felt Benzema’s absence influenced the judge’s decision, bemoaning a ruling that ‘does not correspond to the facts.’
Benzema’s lawyer Sylvain Cormier (above) said his client ‘has nothing to be ashamed of.’
A few minutes later, the two lawyers slipped out of court – de-robed but not done yet. They moved next door, to a quaint café, Le Royal. It was time for coffee and a conflab about a conversation that holds the key to this case.
Back in October 2015, both Benzema and Valbuena were training with France at the national football centre, Clairefontaine – 20 miles from here, south west of Paris.
Away from prickling ears, Benzema said he knew someone who could help ‘manage’ the possible publication of a sex-tape that threatened the midfielder’s future with France. Benzema insisted he was looking out for a team-mate.
Benzema (left) said he knew someone who could help ‘manage’ the possible publication of Valbuena (right) sex-tape
Prosecutors argued he was part of a plot that dated back to July 2014, when Axel Angot, a fixer for players at Marseille, stumbled across some, er… compromising material while recovering data from Valbuena’s phone.
Soon Angot and Mustapha Zouaoui – a petty criminal who sourced luxury items for footballers – began masterminding the crime. The judge ruled they were hoping to gain up to €150,000.
They tried – and failed – to enlist the help of Djibril Cisse, himself a victim of a similar blackmail attempt in 2008. They turned to Younes Houass, who did odd-jobs around Marseille’s training ground. Eventually they turned to Karim Zenati – a convicted armed robber and childhood friend of Benzema.
The judge ruled it was that unshakeable loyalty, rather than money, that lured Benzema into this case. A month after speaking to Valbuena, the striker was in custody accused of complicity in the blackmail attempt.
The judge said Benzema’s motive was not money but his unwavering bond with his childhood friend Karim Zenati (pictured)
It took nearly six years for the case to come to court. For most of that time, Benzema has been consigned to international wilderness. He missed Euro 2016 on home soil. He missed France’s glorious victory at the 2018 World Cup. Only earlier this year was he recalled by Didier Deschamps.
What now? Well, French football chief Noel Le Graet recently suggested that even a guilty verdict would not preclude the striker from selection. For Valbuena, on the other hand, even this shred of vindication comes too late.
He has not played for France since the month he spoke to Benzema. Now 37, the Olympiacos midfielder can never make up for lost time.
Benzema (left) has been allowed to play for France again but Valbuena’s career there is over
Both will struggle to shake the debris of this case. Unlike Benzema, Valbuena turned up to the first two days of last month’s trial, when he was mocked and details of his private life were broadcast to the court.
His mother and sister had to listen as Zouaoui described Valbuena’s home as a ‘shagodrome’, where people openly slept with a revolving cast of women. Ever since the video emerged, Valbuena’s biggest concern was how it would threaten his place in the France team, ‘the holy grail’.
With good reason, it turns out. His club career in France crumbled too as the scandal weighed heavy on his 5ft 6in frame. He left in 2017 in search of ‘somewhere where I would be judged only on my football.’
He has never returned and missed Wednesday’s verdict to prepare for a Europa League clash with Fenerbahce.
Valbuena, who turned up for the trial, is now 37 and playing for Greek side Olympiacos
None of the accused turned up, either. Though Benzema faced a possible maximum sentence of five years, the prosecution wanted 10 months’ suspended. The judge felt he deserved more.
Summarising his 74-page verdict, he noted Benzema’s absence and ruled that the forward had lied, and ‘falsely presented himself as a friend wishing to help his team-mate.’
He added: ‘Even if it does not appear that Karim Benzema was aware of the previous manoeuvres targeting Mathieu Valbuena, the content of his private conversation… demonstrates that he was personally involved.’