- Associated Press - Friday, March 11, 2016

PARIS (AP) - Karim Benzema is now free to play alongside Mathieu Valbuena after a French appeals court lifted the order preventing the Real Madrid striker from meeting with his France teammate on Friday, paving the way for his comeback with the national squad.

Benzema’s lawyer, Sylvain Cormier, described Friday’s decision as “a first step.” Benzema, who is currently sidelined with a hamstring injury, is facing preliminary charges of conspiracy to blackmail relating to an extortion scam over a sex tape involving France teammate Valbuena.

Benzema has been suspended from the national team until the case has been resolved, meaning that he could miss the European Championship to be held in France from June 10.

An investigating judge had lifted the order keeping the two players apart, but the prosecutor appealed.

The French football federation also welcomed the judicial decision “as a first step,” adding it was allowed to join the case as plaintiff, meaning it will now have access to the case files.

Benzema is one of France’s key players as it gets ready to host the Euro 2016 tournament and French football authorities have been pushing hard for a reconciliation between the players, hoping they will be both available for the continental cup.

While prime minister Manuel Valls joined in the criticism of Benzema after the case emerged last October, French federation president Noel Le Graet has remained a strong supporter of the former Lyon forward.

In December, Le Graet said that Benzema’s ban from the France squad could be reconsidered if there was “something new in the case.”

Benzema’s involvement has not yet been fully determined. But investigators who charged him believed he was approached by a childhood friend to act as an intermediary and convince Valbuena to deal directly with blackmailers.

Benzema denies any wrongdoing but his arguments were undermined when Valbuena spoke about his attempts to pressure him. Valbuena told a French newspaper he was particularly shocked by the way Benzema spoke about him over the phone with one of the suspected blackmailers, with Benzema joking that Valbuena would get “eaten by the piranhas.”

Benzema acknowledged that the tone of his conversation was uncalled for and apologized to Valbuena and his family.

Preliminary charges under French law mean magistrates have strong reason to believe a crime was committed, and allow time for further investigation. The charges may later be dropped. In 2010, Benzema was handed preliminary charges for soliciting an underage prostitute but was acquitted in a case that lasted more than three years and tarnished his reputation.

“Our goal is to have the case abandoned,” Alain Jakubowicz, another lawyer hired by Benzema, told RTL radio. “We want Karim Benzema, who has been sullied in an ignoble way, to get his honor back. I don’t need to mention all the newspapers’ front pages and how the confidentiality of investigations was violated. I’ve never seen this in my 40-year career.” 


Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.

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