PARIS: The sex-tape blackmail scandal in which Karim Benzema has become mired has cast a shadow over France’s preparations for the European Championship that they will host next summer.
The announcement by French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet on Thursday that Real Madrid striker Benzema was suspended indefinitely from the France set-up has left national coach Didier Deschamps to focus on other options in attack in the build-up to the opening game on June 10.
Benzema is the leading scorer among all current France internationals with 27 goals from 81 caps but he has been charged with complicity to blackmail his teammate Mathieu Valbuena in relation to a sex-tape.
He runs the risk of a five-year prison sentence and has been ordered not to have contact with Valbuena, so it was no surprise when Le Graet declared that the 27-year-old was suspended until the case is settled.
Le Graet called the decision “heartbreaking”, and the chances of the case being resolved before the Euros appear slim, even if Benzema himself has expressed hope in public.
“The Euros are a big deal and I dream of playing in them, like many players. And it’s in France, so that’s even better,” he said in an interview with TF1.
“I’m not worried and hope this is all sorted out soon so I can play.”
In the meantime, the door has opened for the Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud to establish himself as the first choice centre-forward.
Giroud has scored 13 times in 45 appearances for Les Bleus and his stunning hat-trick in Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Olympiakos in Greece on Wednesday that took his team through to the Champions League last 16 was a timely reminder of what he can do.
Elsewhere, Antoine Griezmann is a different type of striker but he has shown with Atletico Madrid that he can score goals regularly at the highest level and already has experience of major tournaments having featured at last year’s World Cup in Brazil.
“He can still get better but if he can maintain his current form that would be a very good thing,” said Deschamps last month.
Anthony Martial has handled the pressure well since his big-money move to Manchester United in the summer and has already impressed fleetingly at international level, while Lyon’s Nabil Fekir could yet have a major part to play if he recovers from a serious knee injury in time.
Martial and Fekir are just two examples of the rich seam of supremely talented young players available to Deschamps that also includes Real Madrid centre-back Raphael Varane and Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba, the latter a genuine world-class talent on his day.
The problem for France is that, like all host nations, their lack of competitive action in the build-up to the finals makes them something of an unknown quantity.
They have only played friendlies since losing 1-0 to Germany in the quarter-finals of the World Cup last year. In that time, they have beaten Spain, Germany and Portugal twice but have lost to Brazil, Belgium and England.
“I think this team is better, it has grown since the last World Cup, increased in maturity,” said Germany coach Joachim Loew last month.
“It’s a well-balanced side with Paul Pogba as a central player. I’d classify them as one of the favourites.”
Those doubting whether France can live up to expectations on home soil at the finals even without their star striker should be reminded that, when Les Bleus won the World Cup as hosts in 1998, they did so with Stephane Guivarc’h leading the attack.
But just as Zinedine Zidane emerged to lead that team to glory, and Michel Platini was the inspiration when France won the European Championship as hosts in 1984, Deschamps needs someone to step up and help make a very good team into genuine contenders to lift the trophy.