Inside World Football
Michel Platini has always presented himself as unique. That he was a unique footballer cannot be doubted although the fact that he could not guide his country to a World Cup win means for all his great achievements as player he will always remain to an extent the nearly man, not quite in the class of Franz Beckenbauer. But it is his role as administrator in the last decade that raises questions about why and how he was ever considered a football administrator in any way different to the less than reputable bunch who have governed the world game for so long.
This reputation has been based on the fact that he is a rare footballing great willing to become an administrator. A man from the world of shorts willing to wear suits. It has also helped that he is seen as one keen to bring some romance back to a game increasingly driven by money and more open and transparent than nearly all the other administrators. Platini himself has played on this as, for instance, in becoming the only member of the FIFA executive to disclose how he voted on the controversial 2010 ballot that decided that Qatar should host the 2022 World Cup. Even the fact that he went on to say that while he voted for Qatar he privately told them that the World Cup should be held in the winter not the summer did not quite diminish the aura of a man who was different to the others.
Yet the recent revelations and, in particular, the payment of £1.35 million by Sepp Blatter for work he had done for FIFA, and the way the payment has emerged indicate that Platini is actually no different. The gloss is different, the substance is not. And looking back at his Presidency it is clear he does not really stand out from the rest of the crowd.
So consider his record as UEFA President. During his campaign against Johansson he made much of the fact that the Champions League format meant the old romance of the European Cup had disappeared. Under that format we had matches when a great team from western or southern Europe played a lowly side from the east in a knock out round from the beginning of the tournament and stood a chance of being eliminated. What he would like, Platini said, would be to bring back the unpredictability of his own playing days. He has tinkered with the Champions League and the champions of the lesser nations now have more of a chance. But this has not by any means brought back the romance of the old European Cup. What it has done is dilute the group stages of the Champions League and it is clear this has been an exercise by Platini of vote buying in the committee rooms rather than anything to do with events on the field of play.
Also consider the UEFA Nations League. UEFA calls it “the rejuvenation of national team football” saying it “stems from the desire of UEFA, and especially the UEFA President, to improve the quality and the standing of national team football.” The fact is it will mean more teams qualifying for the Euros and this is really a case of Platini shoring up his support base in UEFA more than any concerns with wider football horizons. It is one could say a classic case of Platini learning from his mentor Blatter about the arts of the football politician, a man who knows how to cultivate his vote bank irrespective of what it does to the game.
In a sense this trait of Platini was shown almost from the start of his term as President. One of his first tasks was to rewrite the UEFA statues, discard the system of having a chief executive that Lennart Johansson his defeated opponent had created, and go back to the concept of general secretary. To be fair Platini had campaigned on that platform but it was a retrograde move and remains a backward not a forward step.
Since then Platini has made several other moves which suggest that like Blatter he can also play the political game. So in the run up to the FIFA decision to select the hosts for 2018 and 2022 he had a trip to Seoul to meet Chung Mong Joon. The trip seemed to go well. For a week the rich and powerful South Korean entertained Platini hoping to get his support for Korea’s bid for the 2022 World Cup. But when Chung came to see Platini in Nyon he left angry and frustrated as the Frenchman told him he would support Prince Ali for a position on the FIFA executive but support Chung for AFC President and nothing about supporting Korea’s bid.
Then we have his meeting with Sunil Gulati head of the US soccer federation. The meeting was private but Gulati did go away with the impression that Platini would support USA for 2022. Platini was keen 2018 should come to Europe, the first World Cup in the old world since 2006 but after that, it seems, he was ready to return to the new world.
But then came the now famous lunch at the Elysee Palace with the son of the Emir of Qatar, he has since become Emir, and President Sarkozy following which Platini decided to support Qatar. Platini insists he was not instructed by the President but if that is the case why having expressed to many that he did not think Qatar was a sensible idea did he change his mind? And why having, it seems, promised he would support USA did he switch? Could Qatar really be considered better than the USA given what the FIFA medical commission had said about playing in the summer heat of Qatar?
What makes that meeting all the more curious is that Sébastien Bazin then head of Colony Capital was said to be at the lunch. The company then owned PSG which was subsequently sold to the Qataris. It is widely believed that the lunch discussed such a sale. So even if we assume that over the cheese and wine Sarkozy did not instruct Platini to vote for Qatar, what was the head of European football doing at a lunch with the head of the French state about the sale of a French club to the Qataris?
And then, of course, we have the revelations of the £1.35 million payment Blatter made to Platini. The payment is at the centre of criminal investigation launched by Swiss prosecutors into Blatter, the first time the beleaguered head of world football has been drawn into the net of criminal investigations launched into the organisation by the Swiss and the US Justice Department of Justice. The Swiss prosecutors describe it as a “disloyal payment”, with Blatter suspected of signing a contract “unfavourable to FIFA”. It has now seen both Blatter and Platini suspended from FIFA by FIFA’s own ethics committee. Blatter denies wrong doing and Platini says the payment was for full time work on “a wide range of work of matters relating to football” for FIFA between January 1999 and June 2002. However Platini only received the final tranch of the payment, £1.35 million, in February 2011 with Platini claiming that FIFA could not pay him all money in 2002 because of its “financial situation”. That seems very odd.
In 2002 FIFA was wrestling with the crisis created by the collapse of ISL. This led to much pressure on Blatter, even efforts to remove him and grave doubts expressed about FIFA’s finances including a special Congress session at Seoul to discuss FIFA’s accounts. Through it all Blatter boasted of how strong FIFA’s finances were, announced more money for the national associations, so how come Blatter told Platini there was no money to pay the £1.35 million? Is it possible Blatter was economical with the truth at the 2002 FIFA Congress? And let us recall that just before the Seoul Congress Platini with Blatter’s support had been elected to the FIFA executive. So why did Platini not ask to look at FIFA’s books when his friend Blatter said there was no money? Surely as the newly elected executive member that is the first thing he should have done, more so as his friend Blatter was publicly saying how strong the finances were. And what is more as FIFA executive member Blatter could not have stopped him looking at the books of accounts. So why did he not look at them? Or is it possible that FIFA’s accounts are so opaque that it is impossible to make out what the figures mean?
And, of course, all this raises the question of FA’s continued support for Platini to become FIFA President. Greg Dyke, chairman of the FA who had backed Prince Ali in May against Blatter has not really justified his switch to Platini and it is possible the FA may change course again. And the FA, of course, has history on this. Consider what happened in 1998 when Blatter fought Johansson. The FA had said it would support the Swede but at the last minute the FA switched to Blatter. “I remember that,” recalls Johansson. “I felt very sad and hurt by that. I never heard anything from the FA afterwards and I gradually found out what the world is like, whom you can trust and whom you cannot.”
All this shows that for all this talk of a brave new world nothing really changes in football. Platini was a great footballer and his skills will always be cherished by those who saw him play. But recent events show that as an administrator he is like the rest of them.