Truth is elusive in attack on a French football star

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It was dark by the time Aminata Diallo stepped through the concrete arch of the Hôtel de Police and onto the sidewalk outside. It had been about 36 hours since officers had banged on her apartment door, rousing her from sleep and taking her into custody.

Now released and scrolling through the hundreds of messages she had missed, Diallo, a midfielder for the French soccer team Paris St.-Germain, was stunned by what she saw. Little known only days earlier beyond the cloistered world of French women’s soccer, her name was suddenly headline news around the world.

Diallo, the news reports said, was the player who had been driving the car last month when one of her teammates was pulled from the passenger seat by a masked man and assaulted. Diallo, the reports said, was the one who had been unharmed as her friend and teammate Kheira Hamraoui was beaten with an iron bar. And Diallo was the player now being questioned not as a witness but as a possible suspect in what police had suggested was an orchestrated attack.

The story, with its hints of sporting jealousy, its echoes of Tonya Harding and its links to Paris St.-Germain, the reigning French champion and one of the richest soccer clubs in the world, quickly spread far and wide.

But as details emerge — about marital infidelity; about accusations implicating other members of the team; about reports of menacing phone calls to players disparaging the victim before she was attacked — that initial story has been turned on its head.

And now no one is sure what, or whom, to believe.

A Case in Limbo

More than three weeks have passed since Diallo, 26, walked out of the police station in Versailles, released after two days of interviews and a night in a tiny, foul-smelling cell. The investigation continues, but police appear to be no closer to figuring out what, or who, was behind the attack Nov. 4 on a dark street in the Paris suburb of Chatou.

A few things are undisputed. Hamraoui, 31, was the victim of a serious crime. Diallo was questioned and released. None of the attackers have been identified. No weapon has been recovered. And no one has been charged with a crime.

But in reporting about the tumultuous weeks since the attack, The New York Times also learned that Hamraoui has at times suggested other people with links to the club, including at least two other teammates, may have been involved in her assault; that while PSG kept Diallo and Hamraoui training apart from the team, and from each other, for weeks, a scheduling mistake led to one interaction in which sharp words were exchanged; and that while police released Diallo without filing charges, they have declined to clear her of suspicion and have retained her two cellphones and laptop.

The collateral damage of the incident, meanwhile, continues to grow. Diallo and Hamraoui had their names smeared and their careers disrupted. The locker room harmony at PSG has been shattered. And the marriage of a French soccer hero drawn into the case has collapsed; his wife released a statement saying she would seek a divorce after, her lawyer claimed, he had admitted to her that he had been having an extramarital affair with Hamraoui.

The Times collected information on the attack, and its aftermath, by interviewing nearly a dozen people with direct knowledge of the principals, the assault and the days that followed, including friends, relatives and associates of the players; the players’ lawyers; PSG insiders; and police.

A Team Dinner

To those present there was nothing special about the dinner at an upscale restaurant set on an island in one of Paris’ biggest parks in the first week of November.

The players had been brought together by their club to break bread, an effort to maintain the cohesion that helped them start the season undefeated.

Diallo agreed to pick up Hamraoui and another player, Sakina Karchaoui, after the club asked the players to car pool because of limited parking at the restaurant.

After dinner, around 10:30 p.m., the three women returned to Diallo’s car for the drive home.

After dropping off Karchaoui, and with parked cars narrowing the roadway, Diallo was still pulling away tentatively when two men, their faces covered by masks, emerged from behind a van. They thumped on the car’s hood, demanding that it stop, and screamed to Diallo and Hamraoui to “open the door.”

The assailants moved quickly. One opened the driver’s door and pinned Diallo against the steering wheel. The other yanked Hamraoui from the passenger seat.

“The man on my side grabbed me and pulled me from the vehicle,” Hamraoui later told police, according to details of her statements published by the French media. “Before he did that, he pulled a rectangular iron bar that he had hidden in his pants or underneath his sweater. He hit me from the very first moments of the attack to force me out.”

Hamraoui said she fell into the road. “My attacker hit me with an iron bar several times,” she said. “I saw that he was targeting my legs, and I tried to protect myself with my hands.”

Hamraoui said she recalled hearing one of the men yell something about a married man. Diallo would later tell police she heard a full sentence: “So like that, you touch married men?”

The attack lasted less than a minute before the assailants fled. Hamraoui, blood streaming from a wound on her hand, slumped back into the car. She and Diallo immediately called Karchaoui, whose home was less than 100 meters behind them, to tell her what had happened and to ask her to join them at the car. Then they set off for a nearby emergency room.

The Aftermath

As Diallo drove, the players alerted their team. PSG’s deputy head of security, Frédéric Doué arrived at the hospital with Bernard Mendy, an assistant coach on the women’s team. A friend of Hamraoui’s soon appeared there as well.

With Hamraoui’s wounds treated but the assailants unidentified, the club officials told the women that under no circumstances were they to return to their homes. Instead, the team arranged for them to spend the night at a Holiday Inn close to the team’s training base about 10 miles west of central Paris.

Karchaoui and Hamraoui shared a room. Diallo took one nearby. Hamraoui’s friend also spent the night.

In the hotel, the women discussed who might have been behind the attack. Hamraoui was adamant from the start that someone at the club was involved, according to people familiar with the conversations. The players also discussed a strange episode from a couple of weeks earlier, when a number of their teammates had received anonymous calls from a man speaking ill of Hamraoui. But as they continued to talk through the night, Hamraoui also alighted on other potential suspects.

The next morning, Hamraoui received a phone call. It was Eric Abidal, a former French national team player whom she had come to know at Barcelona, where she played for three seasons when he served as the club’s technical director.

Hamraoui asked Abidal if his wife might want to hurt her, before telling him that she had been assaulted. With the phone set to loudspeaker, the people in the room could hear his response: He sounded stunned.

On Nov. 9, less than a week after the attack, Diallo started in Hamraoui’s place in a Champions League game against Real Madrid.

That night, as she does after most games, Diallo stayed up late. She had barely slept, according to people close to her, when a few hours later she was awakened by banging at her front door. Opening it, she was confronted by four police officers.

36 Hours

Politely but firmly, an officer told Diallo that she was to accompany them to the police station. Other officers searched her home and collected items, including at least two cellphones and a laptop computer. At the police station, Diallo declined an offer to have a lawyer present during questioning.

From the moment police started asking her questions, Diallo realized Hamraoui had named her as a suspect. Police suggested Diallo had taken a different route home after dinner than the one she had first suggested. They questioned her about why she had been driving so slowly after she pulled away from Karchaoui’s home. And then they presented her with the theory, later published by a French newspaper while she was still in custody, that the assault might have been rooted in her desire to acquire Hamraoui’s midfield spot in the first team.

At the entrance to the police station, Diallo was picked up by a friend. As she was driven home, the scale of her unwanted celebrity quickly became clear in the hundreds of text messages she had received from friends and family and others.

That evening she hired a lawyer, Mourad Battikh, to represent her.

Neither Diallo nor Hamraoui has said anything publicly about the attack or its aftermath. But a few days after Diallo’s release from detention, Battikh appeared on French television and described his client’s arrest as “defamatory, scandalous and incoherent.” A few hours later, Hamraoui’s lawyer, Said Harir, took to the airwaves brandishing images that showed in graphic detail the injuries his client had sustained.

PSG, which declined to comment for this article, has said little amid twisting plotlines in the case, which now appear to include the demise of Abidal’s marriage. A lawyer representing his wife, Hayet, said she had filed for divorce and released a statement Nov. 18 in which Hayet Abidal claimed her husband had admitted to an extramarital affair with Hamraoui.

Hayet Abidal has denied any involvement in the attack. But Maryvonne Caillebotte, the prosecutor first responsible for the case, told Le Monde last month that Eric Abidal “would be heard soon” and did not exclude the possibility that his wife would be questioned, too.

Diallo wants justice, her lawyer said. She is convinced of her innocence and determined to continue her career at PSG, where she has only six months left on her contract. “Her reputation was damaged by all the newspapers around the world,” said Battikh.

Hamraoui’s lawyer said the focus must remain on finding out who was behind the attack. “We expect they will charge the guilty people quickly,” he said.

“What she wants today,” he added of Hamraoui, “is that her private life is respected, that her status as a victim is respected.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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