France football stars Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema were charged last night with soliciting an underage prostitute -- the latest blow for the French national team that returned from the World Cup in disgrace.
Ribery (27) and Benzema (22) were questioned for most of yesterday as part of an investigation into a suspected network of prostitutes that operated out of a nightclub on Paris's Champs Elysees. The brother of Ribery's wife, Wahiba, has also been placed under investigation.
The investigation, which was put on hold during the World Cup, will further damage the reputation of a French team which performed, and behaved, so woefully in South Africa.
Ribery, who plays for Bayern Munich, and Benzema, of Real Madrid, have been suspected since April of paying for sex with a girl called Zahia Dehar, before she reached the legal age of prostitution. Under French law, prostitution is legal but pimping is not. Prostitutes must be over the age of 18 and clients can be prosecuted if they knowingly offer to pay for sex with girls below that age.
Both the players deny any wrongdoing.
Ribery has admitted having sex with Dehar, but claims that he was unaware of her age at the time, while Benzema says that he is "unaffected" by the allegations.
Moroccan-born Ms Dehar, who has become a star of French glossy magazines since the story broke in April, has repeatedly told journalists that her footballing clients were unaware of her age.
In a series of press interviews, she has -- confusingly -- denied that she is a prostitute but admitted accepting money to have sex with wealthy men.
She was first questioned by the Paris vice squad as part of a wider investigation into a bar just off the Champs Elysees which was suspected of providing call girls for sports and showbusiness celebrities. Ms Dehar told police that Ribery, who is married with two children, flew her to a luxury hotel in Munich in April 2009 as a present to himself for his 26th birthday. She was then 17 years and two months old.
Ribery and Benzema could face up to three years in prison and a €55,000 fine if found guilty of paying to have sex with a minor. However, the burden of proof would rest on the prosecution to show that the pair knew -- or should have known -- that the girl was under 18.
Ribery and Benzema presented themselves for questioning at the headquarters of the Paris vice squad yesterday. They were then taken, in handcuffs, to the Palais de Justice to appear before investigating magistrate Andre Dando. He is looking into allegations of high-class pimping for celebrity clients at the Zaman Cafe, which has now been closed.
Ten other people were arrested on 12 April.
Four of them, including the manager of the bar and a waiter, have been placed under formal investigation for pimping.