PARIS: Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema said he was denied the chance to play for France in the Euro 2016 this month because of his Algerian origins.
The French Football Federation denied the accusation, but Benzema’s comments, published just nine days before France hosts the tournament, have deepened a row about alleged racism in a national team once seen as a model for ethnic integration.
Last week, Eric Cantona accused coach Didier Deschamps of omitting Benzema and another French-born soccer player of North African descent, Hatem Ben Arfa, because of their foreign roots.
Deschamps’ lawyer said he planned to sue Cantona for slander. The two have a longstanding rivalry since the mid-1990s when Deschamps replaced Cantona as France’s captain and led the team to World Cup and Euro successes in 1998 and 2000.
Benzema is under investigation over an alleged plot to blackmail a teammate, something Prime Minister Manuel Valls said made him unfit to play for the national team. Benzema said his legal problems were being used as an excuse to drop him from the squad.
“They said I couldn’t be picked, but on a sporting level I don’t understand and, on a legal level, I’ve not been convicted and I’m presumed innocent,” he told Spanish sports magazine Marca.
“Deschamps succumbed to pressure from a racist part of France,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s only Didier’s decision, because I get on well with him, the president (of the French Football Federation, Noel Le Graet) and everybody.”
Deschamps was not immediately available for comment.
Le Graet said Deschamps was neither for nor against Benzema and had previously picked the forward even when he was not in good form. “I think he has got carried away a little bit,” Le Graet told reporters at the French team’s training camp in Austria. “I would have liked him to have been a bit more kind. These are words that don’t correspond with the realities.”