Paris: French soccer international Franck Ribery was placed under judicial investigation on Tuesday on suspicion of soliciting sex with an under-age prostitute, the Paris public prosecutor`s office said.
Police investigating a prostitution ring questioned the Bayern Munich winger, as well as Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, for several hours at the Paris vice squad headquarters.
The offence carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a 45,000-euro (USD 58,390) fine, although a conviction hinges on proving that the accused knew the minor`s age.
Ribery`s lawyer insisted he did not know that the girl at the centre of the probe was under 18 at the time.
The prosecutor`s spokesman said Ribery was released from custody pending further investigation. Benzema was still being questioned by magistrate Andre Dando, who would decide later in the day whether to place him under investigation in the same case, he said.
Police had postponed the hearing until after the World Cup, in which Ribery was part of a disastrous French campaign which led to a public outcry after players protested against the coach and the team crashed out without winning a game.
"One has to ask whether he is not being made to pay for France`s World Cup failure," said Ribery`s lawyer, Sophie Bottai.
French media have suggested the players were clients of a nightclub in Paris` upscale Champs-Elysees district that allegedly featured escorts, including the under-18 girl, Zahia Dehar, at the centre of the affair.
The scandal, which gripped France ahead of the World Cup, took a new twist in late April when the young woman at the centre of the case gave a lengthy interview to Paris Match magazine, implicating players and denying being a prostitute.
She said Ribery, married with two children, had invited her to Munich in April 2009 to celebrate his 26th birthday in a luxury hotel, adding that he had paid her for three encounters last year.
According to French law, paid sex with someone under 18 is deemed sex with a minor.
Zahia, who turned 18 in February, confirmed widespread reports in the French press that she was underage when she met Ribery, but added that she had not informed him about her age.
Ribery`s lawyer Bottai told reporters that for her client to be found guilty, the girl "would have had to look like a minor and that was not the case and ... had informed him that she was under age, which was not the case."
Zahia had "said in all the press that she told him (Ribery) and others that she was an adult," Bottai added.
Ribery was France`s most popular player before the World Cup fiasco, in which `Les Bleus` were eliminated in the first round without winning a match, and he took part in a revolt by players who boycotted a training session before their final game.
Police also questioned Ribery`s brother-in-law and Benzema`s agent in custody over the incident. Police custody can last 48 hours before a judge must make a decision.
Benzema, who was excused from training by his club on Tuesday for personal reasons, told French radio in April he had done nothing wrong.
France striker Sidney Govou, who has just moved from Lyon to Panathinaikos of Greece, was also questioned by police in April along with Ribery about the escort girls` network.
Another France international, Hatem Ben Arfa, was questioned as a witness earlier in July.
The "Zahia affair" will do little to improve the image of a French squad after the team looked lost on the pitch in South Africa and tarnished their reputation with bickering off it.
Laurent Blanc was officially appointed France coach at the start of the month with the mission to restore the team`s pride after their World Cup performance.
Blanc will pick his first team for a friendly in Norway on August 11 with the 22-year old Benzema expected to be part of the new generation.