French sex-tape scandal: Should off-pitch antics matter in football?

France’s PM says Karim Benzema has ‘no place’ in the national squad. But is that fair game?

Graham Ruthven

Published: Updated:

Such is the fervor for football in France, it was hardly surprising that the country’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls was asked about an alleged sex-tape bribery scandal embroiling striker Karim Benzema.

Other nations might have considered such an issue as merely trivial, but not France, where football is just as important as any matter debated in parliament.

“A great athlete should be exemplary. If he is not, he has no place in the France team,” Valls reportedly said, underlining footballers’ responsibility as role models. “There are so many kids, so many youngsters in our suburbs that relate to great athletes. They wear the blue jersey, the colors of France, which are so important in these moments.”

Indeed, the 27-year-old Benzema faces the possibility of being suspended from the national team, amid an investigation into whether he was part of an alleged blackmail plot involving a sex tape reportedly showing France teammate Mathieu Valbuena and his partner. Benzema’s lawyers have insisted he has committed no wrongdoing.

Les Bleus now face the possibility of preparing for next summer’s European Championships on home soil without their best player.

A moral example?

But should sports people be “exemplary”, as Valls suggests? To what extent do football players have to set a moral example for their fans and the general public? How much should on-the-field achievement be separated from off-field conduct? Should we really care at all?

It appears that many more people do care. Take the furore currently surrounding heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury following his shock world-title fight win over Wladimir Klitschko. A petition calling for his removal from the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, citing his controversial views on women and gay people, has now amassed more than 82,000 signatures.

But should Fury’s opinions have any impact on how he is regarded as an athlete? Are his views, and his personal character, in any way relevant to what he has achieved as a sportsman? Some struggle to separate the two, but is that really the way it should be?

Deeper than sport

It’s a discussion that goes deeper than just sport, examining the esteem in which athletes are held as role models. Such discourse transcends more than the case studies of Benzema and Fury, and is down to individual perspective as much as anything else. In that sense, it’s difficult to reach a true conclusion on the matter – yet for as long as sportspeople are still people, making mistakes just the rest of us, the debate will rumble on.

In the case of Benzema, the striker might feel somewhat aggrieved at the treatment meted out against him. He might look at how Frank Ribery was still selected to play for the national team whilst facing charges of sex with an underage prostitute, only retiring from Les Bleus in 2014 after the investigation had concluded and said charges dropped. Three others complicit in that case were also allowed to play for France whilst the criminal case was ongoing.

Innocent until proven guilty?

So why did France’s Prime Minister say Benzema has “no place” in the national team? The Real Madrid striker is innocent until proven guilty, but has already faced the condemnation of his countrymen before any verdict has been reached.

All the while Benzema is very much still a key figure for Real Madrid, scoring twice in the capital club’s win over Getafe in La Liga at the weekend. “I consider him a fundamental player for us. On a personal level I have said before that he is a great guy and he has our support,” coach Rafael Benitez reportedly said. “He is a key player for us because he is a reference up front and makes those around him play even better.”

Benitez has no issue with fielding the striker. So what’s different at international level? Is it that the club game lacks ethics, or that the international game is overly sensitive to them? Does the tricolor demand higher standards?

Or maybe Real Madrid are simply serving their own self-interests, sticking with the French striker because of his undeniable skill. Whether or not Benzema is acquitted of wrongdoing, the case he finds himself entangled in raises fundamental questions about what athletes are sportspeople are expected to be.