Everyone knows that putting living things in a vacuum is not to be advised. Apparently the tongue dries up and becomes covered in ice as consciousness is lost. Expulsion of digestive gases causes unpleasant things to happen with bodily fluids. The entire body then swells like a balloon and eventually the subject suffers fatal cardiac arrest. It is very nasty indeed.
If a reputation comes under attack and it is left alone in an information vacuum, the outcome can be similar. This was what Michel Platini discovered after he took legal advice to keep his own counsel after he was provisionally suspended by FIFA’s ethics committee.
When it was revealed he had received a CHF2m (£1.35m, €1.84m) payment from FIFA in 2011 – for which he and the president Sepp Blatter were banned for 90 days after the Swiss attorney general took an interest in it – it took Platini three days to even attempt to explain himself.
The letter he sent to national associations was unsatisfactory, not dealing with the fundamental allegation. The vacuum was filled by others who came out with their commentary, the likes of Platini’s former UEFA adversary, Lennart Johansson, who made clear the payment had not been put before the executive committees of either FIFA or UEFA.
Before long, it was patently obvious to everyone: Platini had taken a CHF2m bribe not to stand in the FIFA presidential election against Blatter in 2011. In the court of public opinion, Platini has been hanged, drawn and quartered before any due process had been conducted. But isn’t it just possible that is not the case? That in fact the payment he received was as he now says it is: restitution of four years’ salary arrears he had been promised but never paid?
I am the only English-speaking journalist Platini has spoken to since his suspension, and the result of our conversations via videoconference and email was published in the Daily Telegraph on Thursday. We had no prior relationship and we have not spoken since the publication. I felt it was time he laid his side of the story bare and gave him the platform to do so.
And what he has done is very reasonably challenge a lot of the assumptions people have made about that payment. As I pointed out in the interview, the biggest issue surrounding the payment is its timing. He received it three months before the 2011 FIFA presidential election, at a time when the then-powerful Asian Football Confederation president, Mohamed Bin Hammam, was urging him to stand for the presidency. He declined to do so.
The coincidence of timing between his decision not to stand and the CHF2m payment is widely received to have been linked. He received the money from Blatter’s FIFA ergo he chose not to challenge Blatter for the FIFA presidency. It was, in effect, a bribe. But there is no evidence for this at all. It was Bin Hammam who brought the prospect of a Platini candidature for the FIFA presidency into the public domain, not Platini himself. At no point did he publicly state his intention to run once Blatter had chosen to stand again. Quite the contrary, he always made clear he would not “fight” a man he had viewed as a father figure.
To suggest he took the money as payment not to run is based on assumption alone, and although that might stand up for some in the court of public opinion, it will not pass the criminal threshold of being beyond reasonable doubt. It would even struggle to get past the civil threshold on the balance of probabilities.
For there is other evidence to further undermine the assumption. There was an oral contract between Blatter and Platini, which neither party denies. This, as Platini told me, is legal in Switzerland. Platini was owed the equivalent of four years’ salary arrears, which, again, neither party denies. Now it is time for us to put ourselves in Platini’s shoes.
It’s February 2011 and the 74-year-old man who had pledged to vacate the FIFA presidency was going back on his word in order to stand again. For the first time in his 13-year presidency there was a very real risk that Mohamed Bin Hammam might defeat Blatter, forcing him out of the presidency.
As the man with whom you held the multimillion-Swiss-franc oral contract stood on the brink, what would you do? Let it lie or ask for your money sharpish before your hopes of ever getting it disappear with him? “I was lucky enough not to need the money,” Platini told me. “But it’s not that just because I don’t need the money I shouldn’t be paid for my work.”
Quite right too. The fact is the money came from FIFA, authorised by the president and the finance director, Markus Kattner (who, following the suspension of Jérôme Valcke, is now the acting secretary-general of FIFA). Platini says he was assured it passed before the Finance and the Audit Committees of FIFA, of which he was not himself a member, and approved. It was, furthermore, signed off by FIFA’s statutory auditors, KPMG, whose role it is to identify any fraud risks. Was this settling of proper debts between client and consultant, properly invoiced for and dealt with through the appropriate finance channels and oversight committees, a matter for the organisation’s full executive board to consider? Not necessarily.
Would it have been better for Platini to have raised it with executive-committee colleagues? In hindsight he would surely say it was. Was there a conflict of interest because he didn’t? Well it is certainly not best-practice governance, that is for sure. But does the fault lie with him or with his advisers in the FIFA and UEFA finance departments, both of whom were notified prior to the payment being made? If what Platini has told me is true, it is clear why the Swiss Attorney General has not made the Frenchman a formal suspect in his inquiries into the matter: he has done nothing criminally wrong.
We cannot assume that Platini has taken a bribe just because of the coincidence of timing that makes things look bad. This is not how justice works. Still, very credible sources tell me that the FIFA Ethics Committee is planning to ban Platini for five years for his alleged infraction, which as Platini has identified is a bitter irony. “In the end the organisation that validated and proceeded with the payment suspended me four years later,” he said.
This is the same Ethics Committee that has banned Harold Mayne-Nicholls for basically nothing. The Chilean’s true crime was that he would have been a credible candidate in this presidential election, a true reformer keen to overturn the Wild West culture at FIFA. Platini would similarly be a reformer in key areas that are of pressing importance for our game.
He told me: “As the FIFA president I’ll continue to push key things through, such as the regulation of transfers or the problems we have with TPO. As I’ve done while at UEFA, I will implement participatory democracy in governance. In the same way for example as I have done by reinforcing the links with the [European Clubs Association] clubs. I intend to invite the representatives of players and clubs to the FIFA Executive Committee, as they must be involved in the governance of their sport. I want to break with all the old practices.”
It is my own view, previously stated here, that FIFA should look beyond football for its next president. But February’s election is not going to be held along those lines and in a limited line-up Platini is the stand-out candidate.
That is absolutely not to say Platini is free from flaws. His 12 years on the crisis-strewn executive committee, with all the baggage that carries, are hard to explain and he has not even tried to yet – something he must do in time. But if the best his enemies in the FIFA establishment can find out about him is his receipt of payment on an outstanding invoice, which he can prove has passed through all the proper channels before being paid, he does not deserve to be banned.
If we really want FIFA’s Wild West culture to end, another unjust decision from the Ethics Committee will not serve us at all.
Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.