PARIS -- A French judge issued preliminary charges Tuesday against soccer stars Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema for soliciting an underage prostitute -- the latest setback for a national team that returned from the World Cup in disgrace and disarray.
Ribery and Benzema were questioned Tuesday as part of a probe into a suspected network of prostitutes that operated out of a nightclub on Paris' glitzy Champs-Elysees, a judicial official told The Associated Press. She was not authorized to be publicly named, according to office policy.
The scandal, which broke before the World Cup began June 11 and has been front-page news in France, includes allegations by a self-described escort girl who says Ribery flew her to visit him as a birthday present to himself when she was still under 18. Ribery is married with two children.
Real Madrid striker Benzema and Bayern Munich forward Ribery could face up to three years in prison and a euro45,000 ($60,000) fine if convicted of paying to have sex with a minor. They are among the most famous soccer players in France.
Both have denied any wrongdoing.
The sex scandal just further tarnishes the French team's image, already laid low by a practice strike at the World Cup, an expletive-laced tirade at the coach and embarrassing performances on the field.
Zahia Dehar, now 18, has told French media that several players on France's national team paid to have sex with her when she was a minor -- although she admits they were not aware she was underage.
Ribery and Benzema were released after French investigating magistrate Andre Dando handed them preliminary charges, which give officials time to pursue a probe before deciding whether to send suspects for trial or drop the case.
The judicial official said preliminary charges also were issued against one of Ribery's relatives, but the person's identity was not immediately clear. A player agent was questioned and released with no charges filed.
Prostitution is legal in France, but prostitutes must be over 18 years old, and clients are liable if they are not.
Ribery's lawyer Sophie Bottai said for the player to be convicted he "would have had to know her age, which wasn't the case."
"She would have had to look like a minor, which wasn't the case, she would have to have told him she was a minor, which wasn't the case," Bottai said.
Benzema's lawyer, Sylvain Cormier, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Dehar says she had been paid for sex since age 16, when she began partying in Paris. She claimed she met Benzema at the nightclub and he bought her services, and alleged that Lyon and France forward Sidney Govou had, too.
She told Paris Match magazine that Ribery flew her to a hotel in Germany for the night as a birthday present to himself. The platinum blonde also posed for the magazine's cover wearing a baby doll dress with a plunging neckline and high heels.
Amid the scandal, Ribery, 27, was called up for the World Cup in South Africa, where France didn't progress past the first round following a string of below-par performances. Benzema was left off the team, with then-coach Raymond Domenech saying it was because of his unimpressive season.
The 22-year-old Benzema was often left on the French bench this season and scored only eight goals in the Spanish league after costing Madrid $44.4 million in 2009.
Ribery started his international career just before the 2006 World Cup, when France lost to Italy in the final, and quickly became a fan favorite. Sporting two long scars on his face, relics of a car accident when he was 2, Ribery was praised for his good humor and darting skills.
However, he failed to live up to expectations in South Africa, leading some to question whether the sex scandal had hurt his focus on the game.
"Somebody has to tell him that he should leave his personal problems in the locker room," former Marseille coach Rolland Courbis said.
His wife Wahiba is often seen in stands. Ribery converted to Islam, his wife's faith, and often prays before entering the field.
Benzema -- born in Lyon to parents of Algerian descent -- has always been very discreet about his private life.
At the World Cup in South Africa, France left its second consecutive tournament without winning a game, adding to a first-round exit from Euro 2008.
The French team endured days of chaos after L'Equipe newspaper published an expletive-filled rant by striker Nicolas Anelka at his coach during one World Cup match, prompting the French federation to send the Chelsea star home.
The next day, the entire squad refused to train in protest at Anelka's dismissal and French captain Patrice Evra had a lively altercation with the team's fitness coach that was captured on TV.
The events caused an outcry in France, with politicians harshly criticizing the players' attitude, legislators in parliament questioning the coach and even President Nicolas Sarkozy weighing in on the athletic debacle.
MARADONA RETURNING: Local news is reporting Diego Maradona will remain as coach of Argentina's national team, a decision he is expected to announce next week after meeting with Argentine Football Association president Julio Grondona.
The state-run Argentine news agency Telam quotes Grondona as saying the meeting would be held Monday.
The newspaper La Nacion says Maradona talked with Grondona on Tuesday and had agreed to a four-year deal that will keep him in charge until the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
An AFA spokesman declined to confirm to The Associated Press that Maradona will continue in the job.
Maradona has not talked publicly about his plans since Argentina was knocked out in the World Cup quarterfinals by Germany.