Real Madrid's Karim Benzema says that the national team boss Didier Deschamps "bowed to the pressure of a racist part of France" by not selecting him for Euro 2016.
Karim Benzema says the decision to leave him out of the French squad for Euro 2016 came because boss Didier Deschamps "bowed to the pressure of a racist part of France".
28-year-old Benzema's place has been in serious doubt since he was implicated in a criminal plot to blackmail former international teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape. He has been under formal investigation since November 2016, which led to his suspension from the national team. That ban was subsequently lifted, but did not lead to a recall for the Real Madrid striker; when Deschamps named his final 23-man squad, there was no spot for Les Blues' highest-scoring active player.
But Benzema believes that there was also a racial element to the call, linked to his Muslim faith, his North African heritage, and the rise of far-right politics in France. Speaking to Spanish publication Marca, Benzema suggested that the current political climate influenced the decision to leave him out of the squad.
"[Deschamps] has bowed to the pressure of a racist part of France," Benzema told Marca, as quoted by the Mirror. "He has to know that in France the extremist [National Front] party reached the second round in the last two elections.
"I do not know, therefore, whether it is a decision only for Didier because I've gotten along with him, with the president [of the French Football Federation] and everyone."
Benzema did face opposition from elsewhere in France, however, with Prime Minister Manuel Valls adamant that there should be no reprieve. "A great athlete should be exemplary," he told French radio last year. "If he is not, he has no place in the France team."
But Benzema is yet to be found guilty of any charges, and suggested that the football authorities should not have made a decision before a legal ruling has been reached.
"They said I cannot be selected, fine. But on a sporting level, I don't understand why," continued Benzema. "At the judicial level, I have not been judged. I am not guilty, so we have to wait to see what the justice says."
Benzema was also critical of Valbuena – who was not named in Deschamps' 23-man squad for the Euros – accusing the Marseille player of failing to tell the whole story.
"The only person who knows what happened in this affair, who knows the truth, is Valbuena. He played a role, he has not told the truth. I wanted to help him, nothing more, and the whole thing blew up in my face."
Benzema is not the first person to criticise Deschamps for his squad selection and hint at an element of racial bias. Speaking to the Guardian last week, Manchester United legend Eric Cantona made similar comments when discussing the omissions of Benzema and another player of North Africa descent, Hatem Ben Arfa.
"Benzema is a great player. Ben Arfa is a great player. 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. Especially after Valls said he should not play for France. And Ben Arfa is maybe the best player in France today. But they have some origins. I am allowed to think about that."
It should be noted that more than half of the French squad named for this summer's Euros have African heritage, including Sevilla's Adil Rami who is of Moroccan descent. That said, it is undeniable that the two most significant players of North African heritage – not to mention two of France's most gifted current players – are not among the squad.
For both a former player and a current star to call out the national team coach for taking race into account when selecting a squad might seem extreme. But, given the in-fighting for which French football has sometimes become famous, it could all be seen as par for the course.