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Page last updated at 02:48 GMT, Saturday, 1 May 2010 03:48 UK

Escort girl claims cast cloud over French football

By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

Karim Benzema (l) and Franck Ribery, September 2009
Franck Ribery (r) and Karim Benzema are important players for France

The latest twist in a prostitution scandal involving members of the French national football team has come as a relief to manager Raymond Domenech.

According to Liberation newspaper, the police investigation into whether Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema knowingly paid for sex with an under-age escort girl has been put on hold until after the World Cup.

"We're not moving till the World Cup is over," a police insider told Liberation. "There is no rush. The implications are too serious."

It means that Domenech should be assured the services of two of his most important players when the squad travels to South Africa next month.

For the time being, the pressure may be off. But the fall-out from the scandal could prove highly damaging to the image of French football, as well as the personal careers of those involved.

This week the public has been lapping up more salacious details about how a blonde Algerian-born teenager called Zahia Dehar worked as a 2,000-euros-a-night (£1,740) courtesan to some of the biggest names in French football.

In an interview with Paris-Match, Ms Dehar described how she was flown to Munich in April last year on the occasion of Mr Ribery's 26th birthday. The Frenchman currently plays for Bayern-Munich.

"I came on an aeroplane with one of my friends who I suppose [Ribery] had asked regarding my services. He had booked a room in a luxury hotel. We had sexual relations and he paid me… I was a nice birthday present, wouldn't you say?" she said.

Nightclub sting

The problem is that at the time Ms Dehar was 17 years old. Under French law, paid sex with someone under the age of 18 is regarded as sex with a minor - and punishable by three years in jail and a fine of 45,000 euros.

Dehar insisted she never told her age either to Mr Ribery or to the Real Madrid player Karim Benzema, with whom she also claims to have had paid sex.

Mr Benzema, who has yet to be questioned in the case, has denied any wrongdoing through his lawyer.

A third French team-member, Sidney Govou, also allegedly used Ms Dehar's services after she turned 18 in February this year.

The French football shirt is sacred. It cannot be worn by someone who is under judicial investigation
Rama Yade, minister for sport

Judging from her pictures in Paris-Match, Ms Dehar certainly looks much older than her years. But one key question is who paid for her ticket to Munich - because that would have necessarily required information on her date of birth.

The secrets of Paris's celebrity demi-monde first began to appear two weeks ago after police launched a raid on a seedy Champs-Elysees nightclub called the Zaman Cafe and detained 18 girls on suspicion of prostitution.

Ms Dehar was not among them. However, her name was already known to investigators, who had been carrying out phone taps on the cafe's managers. Questioned later that day, she confirmed her relations with members of the national football team.

According to her interview in Paris-Match, Ms Dehar had paid sex two more times with Mr Ribery - most recently in December last year in Paris.

But she denied that she was a prostitute, preferring to call herself an "escort girl".

"I told the investigators that I asked for 2,000 euros for a night of love. If it was just for a moment of pleasure I asked for 500," she said.

"Always it is the men who make the proposition. That's why I refuse to be called a 'prostitute'. I am not standing on the pavement or perched at a bar. I go out to cool places where I meet people from show-biz or sport. They propose... and I dispose," she said.

'Independents'

In its report, Paris-Match said that Ms Dehar was typical of the modern prostitution scene in Paris.

Thanks to police crackdowns and the growth of the internet, the old nightclub-based hostess networks run by pimps and protected by criminal gangs have all but vanished.

Instead the market is dominated by "independents" - many of them students.

"Footballers are their preferred prey. The best-informed know what establishments they like to frequent," Paris-Match said.

Mr Ribery - a convert to Islam who is married and has two children - has been interviewed by police.

However, as his lawyer Sophie Battai points out, he was questioned solely as a witness and there is no indication that charges are being prepared against him.

But if that were to happen - if he were "placed under judicial investigation" in the affair - his career on the French team could be in jeopardy.

As the sports minister Rama Yade said on national radio on Friday: "The French football shirt is sacred. It cannot be worn by someone who is under judicial investigation."



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