Striker Karim Benzema suspended from France team

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Benzema Denies Alleged Sex-Tape Blackmail Plot

PARIS (AP) -- Karim Benzema was indefinitely suspended from the French national team on Thursday because of his involvement in an ongoing blackmail case, throwing his international career into doubt.

The Real Madrid striker has been charged with conspiracy to blackmail relating to an extortion scam over a sex tape involving France teammate Mathieu Valbuena.

"I have decided that he is not available for selection," France soccer federation president Noel Le Graet said, calling it a "heart-breaking" decision.

The 27-year-old Benzema, who denies wrongdoing, is suspected of playing an active role in pressuring Valbuena to deal with the blackmailers in possession of the tape.

France has two friendly matches left before the country hosts the European Championship starting June 10 - against the Netherlands and Russia in late March.

Unless the case evolves in Benzema's favor, he won't be part of the team, all-but ruling him out of Euro 2016 with France coach Didier Deschamps naming his squad in May.

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Striker Karim Benzema suspended from France team
MADRID, SPAIN - DECEMBER 08: Karim Benzema of Real Madrid celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the UEFA Champions League Group A match between Real Madrid and Malmo FF at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on December 8, 2015 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Victor Carretero/Real Madrid via Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - DECEMBER 05: Karim Benzema of Real Madrid heads the ball against Alexis Ruano of Getafe CF during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Getafe CF at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on December 5, 2015 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 21: Karim Benzema of Real Madrid duels for the ball with Sergio Busquets of Barcelona during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on November 21, 2015 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - DECEMBER 05: Karim Benzema of Real Madrid celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Getafe CF at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on December 5, 2015 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images)
NICE, FRANCE - OCTOBER 8: Karim Benzema of France gets injured during the international friendly match between France and Armenia at Allianz Riviera stadium on October 8, 2015 in Nice, France. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 04: Karim Benzema (L) of Real Madrid in action against Atletico Madrid's goalkeeper Jan Oblak (R) during the Spanish La Liga football match between Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid at Vicente Calderon Stadium in Madrid, Spain October 04, 2015. (Photo by Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 04: Karim Benzema of Real Madrid scores Real's opening goal during the La Liga match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Real Madrid at Vicente Calderon Stadium on October 4, 2015 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 26: Karim Benzema (L) of Real Madrid CF and his teammate Cristiano Ronaldo (R) pose together at the line up prior to start the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Malaga CF at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on September 26, 2015 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 26: Karim Benzema of Real Madrid CF wins the header before Marcos Angeleri of Malaga CF during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Malaga CF at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on September 26, 2015 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 26: Karim Benzema of Real Madrid under pressure from Miguel Tores of Malaga during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Malaga CF at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on September 26, 2015 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images)
BILBAO, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 23: Karim Benzema of Real Madrid CF celebrates after scoring during the La Liga match between Athletic Club Bilbao and Real Madrid CF at San Mames Stadium on September 23, 2015 in Bilbao, Spain. (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)
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"I leave a glimmer of hope if the case changes," Le Graet said. "My wish is that this case diminishes and that these two France players can shake hands."

Le Graet said he took the decision himself and then informed Deschamps, with whom he has a close relationship.

"We're in an embarrassing situation concerning a case we'd rather avoid," Le Graet said, adding that he still likes Benzema.

"It doesn't change that I have a lot of esteem for this guy. I think he's a good guy, a guy who grew up in a tough neighborhood and never changed his friends," Le Graet said. "I have a heart. Giving out suspensions has never been my cup of tea."

Benzema's involvement in the plot has not yet been fully determined, but investigators believe he was approached by a childhood friend to act as an intermediary.

"I've never backed down from anything but this one is complex because it's not finished yet, it's not clear what happened," Le Graet said. "I'm sure Benzema's been caught up in something crazy."

Two weeks ago, Benzema gave a television interview to French broadcaster TF1.

"I'm being accused, dragged through the mud in every direction, like I was a criminal," Benzema said in an impassioned bid to clear his name, recalling being held overnight at a police station. "I was made to sleep in custody like a scumbag."

Earlier this week, Benzema's lawyers requested a face-to-face meeting with Valbuena in an effort to ease tensions - a meeting Le Graet said he hopes can happen.

The suspension comes with Benzema in peak form, scoring five goals in his past two games for Real Madrid.

He is easily France's best scorer with 27 goals in 81 international matches. Arsenal's Olivier Giroud is the next highest scorer with 13 in 45 matches.

Benzema also missed the 2010 World Cup. Former 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.

At last year's World Cup in Brazil, Benzema scored three goals as France reached the quarterfinals.

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