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France’s top scorer Karim Benzema on Wednesday accused coach Didier Deschamps of bowing to pressure from a “racist” political party by not selecting him for the Euro 2016 squad.
The Real Madrid striker, who is being investigated over an alleged sex-tape blackmail case, questioned whether Deschamps left him out because of his Algerian descent.
The comments echo similar accusations from French legend Eric Cantona, who last week said Deschamps had excluded Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa because of their North African heritage – resulting in a threat of legal action from the coach’s lawyer.
Benzema, 28, told Spanish daily Marca that Deschamps “bowed to pressure from a racist French party” in his selection, referencing the recent electoral success of France’s far-right National Front.
“I do not know if this decision was only down to Didier, because I get along with him, with the president (of the French Football Federation, Noel Le Graet) and everyone,” he said.
Benzema was suspended from international duty in December over a legal investigation into allegations he was involved in an attempt to blackmail his teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape.
France’s leading goal-scorer faces up to five years in jail if found guilty.
“At a legal level, I am still innocent until proven guilty. They should wait until the justice system has made its decision,” the French star said.
“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 told the Spanish newspaper.
Benzema is one of France’s top strikers and biggest football stars, with 27 goals in 81 appearances, despite the emergence of the younger Antoine Griezmann and Anthony Martial.
And it appeared his path to the French Euro 2016 squad was cleared when legal restrictions barring him from contacting Valbuena and others involved in the investigation were lifted.
However, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls and other leading politicians have vocally opposed the player representing his country while the sex-tape inquiry goes on.
The exclusion of Ben Arfa and Benzema from the national squad has caused waves in France, which is struggling with racial tensions after two deadly terrorist attacks in Paris.
Ben Arfa, of Tunisian origin, had been hopeful of making the squad after relaunching his career at Nice, but instead had to settle for a place on Deschamps’s standby list of eight players.
Adding to the controversy, former France and Manchester United midfielder Cantona branded French PM Valls a hypocrite for urging Deschamps to leave Benzema out of the team while French politicians embroiled in scandals stay in their jobs.
“Benzema is a great player. Ben Arfa is a great player,” Cantona, who won 45 caps for France, told the Guardian. “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.”
Asked directly if he was really suggesting that Deschamps – a former France teammate – had been guilty of discrimination, Cantona said: “Maybe no, but maybe yes… the debate is open.”
Despite the controversy, Benzema has pledged to support his country in the upcoming tournament, which France is hosting.
“I’ll follow it like a supporter. I hope they go as far as possible – to try and win it – because it’s important. It’s a big competition at home. So best of luck to all my teammates,” the French player told French TV this week.