Matt Scott: Can Platini prove to be football’s great statesman? Sorry, I doubt it

“The price of greatness is responsibility.” Winston Churchill

It was at Harvard University in September 1943 that Winston Churchill spoke those words. Britain’s prime minister presumed to tell the flower of American youth that they should prepare themselves for death on a distant battlefield because, well, that’s your lot in life, lads.

D-Day and all the horrors of Omaha Beach were still nine months away but they loomed large on the horizon. We can only imagine what emotions were stirred in the 12,000 people who were there to hear Churchill’s entreaty to prepare themselves for the supreme sacrifice. What they would endure was not for themselves – not even, really, for their own nation — but for idealistic concepts that must seem nebulous to most: concepts Churchill articulated that day as the choice between “world anarchy or world order”. It is unimaginable that their great grandchildren would do the same today.

But, as in so many things, Churchill was absolutely right. With greatness does indeed come responsibility. Churchill’s aphorism holds true in all walks of life. A failure to recognise the necessity of responsibility can deny a place in history to the men who would be great. Sepp Blatter, who famously craves the Nobel Peace Prize, is a perfect example. Our game’s achievements over the past two decades of his FIFA presidency have been many. Football has become culturally the most important activity in the world. More than a billion dollars are generated by FIFA every single year, on the back of a tournament that happens only once every four years.

Yet despite being at the top of football through these unprecedented successes, Blatter has negated his legacy. The world is aghast at the way FIFA has comported itself under his 17-year stewardship there. What it needed was an authority figure and statesman who would lead football through its many challenges. Instead it got a unidimensional politician that played to the narrow gallery of his FIFA Congress electorate with scant regard to the welfare of the football world he led.

When he leaves his post at the end of February next year, public opinion will not indulge Blatter with lavish tributes: far from it. Instead the world will bury his memory with eager optimism surrounding his successor.

Michel Platini is widely expected to be that man. As president of UEFA he has turned from being Blatter’s one-time protégé to one of FIFA’s chief antagonists. The hamfisted attempt last week by some unknown party allegedly within FIFA HQ to smear Platini with a secret dossier about his and his family’s links with Qatar – a move referred by UEFA to FIFA’s ethics inspectors – demonstrates the level of antipathy between Zurich and Nyon.

This enmity alone recommends him to many as the man best placed to clean up the mess at FIFA. As Britain’s greatest statesman, Churchill was called upon to do the same for his country on so many occasions – most notably after years of shameful appeasement. But is Platini really football’s Churchill? Or does he remain instinctively the man who once was Blatter’s special adviser and closest associate? How far has the apple fallen from the tree?

First, the case in Platini’s favour. Like the former British prime minister, who fought with rifle in hand in the Boer War and in the trenches of Flanders Field during the First World War, the UEFA president has certainly got his boots dirty. The three-times former European footballer of the year’s achievements with a ball at his feet instantly command respect. As an administrator he led a wonderful World Cup in France that brought many indelible memories as the home nation swept all before them with panache, and even in spite of Stéphane Guivarc’h.

He has like Blatter led his organisation through a period of unprecedented financial success. As demonstrated here earlier this month [see first related article below], UEFA’s Champions League revenues are motoring.

Then there is the masterstroke of holding Euro 2020 in a number of different countries. The decision reflects the growing trend for western governments to shy away from holding global sporting megaevents due to the preposterous expense of staging them. He also has an extremely strong UEFA mandate, having been re-elected this year unopposed for a third four-year term. Moreover he has tremendous experience at the top table at FIFA’s executive committee.

Yet in several of Platini’s strengths lies weakness. Michael Hershman, a co-founder of Transparency International and a former member of FIFA’s Independent Governance Committee [IGC], summed much of it up when he wrote in the influential US policy blog The Hill last week: “Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting [different] results.

“If the stakeholders of FIFA really want to see credibility and respect return to the organisation, it should not look to someone like Michael Platini, who has been a long time member of the executive committee, a protégé of the current president and an opponent of reform – someone who still thinks that creating another task force for reform is the way forward.”

Platini has indeed been one of FIFA’s key decision makers for a long time. Whatever the merits or demerits raised in the “secret dossier” of his decision to vote for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, he has been instrumental to the apparatus of power that Blatter has wielded for so long.

Moreover, the longevity of his UEFA tenure is not something to applaud. The IGC recommended term limits should be introduced for key FIFA figures to reduce the risk of patronage and clientelism, which are often the forefathers of institutional corruption. But the IGC became “seriously worried” when it became clear “the UEFA members were of the opinion that no term limits should be introduced.”

With the increasing financial strength of UEFA there has been much political support for Platini from among the member associations that elect its leader. Undoubtedly this is down to the quality and popularity of UEFA’s flagship club competition, the Champions League. But the bulk of the credit for that lies not with its organisers, but instead with the constituent clubs whose increasing international presence has drawn new commercial interest in their football activities.

Indeed, as far as I can see it, under Platini the record in driving club competitions forward has not been as creditable as it might have been. I have been alarmed at how in one underreported area of UEFA’s activity exactly the sort of culture of patronage that the IGC would fear as dangerous and insidious might be taking shape.

Back in June I reported how UEFA has stood by to allow a Greek club, Asteras Tripolis, a place in the Europa League group stages. This despite the club’s owner being accused in a major criminal inquiry in Athens of involvement in widespread match fixing [see second related article below]. Responsibility within UEFA for looking into these allegations of criminality in European football fell to a law firm that belongs to the son of a UEFA vice-president, Angel María Villar Llona.

The lawyer who specifically undertook the inquiry had previously represented the Greek football federation [the HFF] in an action at the Court of Arbitration for Sport [CAS], which should have prevented his involvement in the case. The investigative report he produced can at best be described as cursory, as it seems to have been based on little more than a letter to the HFF asking what it thought of the issues at hand.

The response that inevitably came back from the HFF’s integrity officer, Dimitrios Davakis, was effectively (and inevitably): ‘Move along, nothing to see here, Greek football is A-OK’, adding that the HFF had itself previously looked into the matters currently under criminal investigation and dismissed them.

However UEFA should know well (not least because I’ve been writing it here) that many of the HFF’s disciplinary and appeals committee members have been accused of criminal complicity in the match-fixing scandal, along with its former president and legal adviser, inter alia. What governing authority would under those circumstances consider their prior inquiries into the matter as sound? Platini’s UEFA did, even though its statutes and common law empower it to have protected the integrity of its competitions and denied Asteras Tripolis entry.

The decision to admit Asteras benefits not only them and their president, Giorgios Borovilos, but also Olympiacos and their owner Vangelis Marinakis. This is because the latter has separately been accused of being the ringleader of a massive match-fixing conspiracy in Greek football, a matter for which he is currently under heavy legal restrictions through his bail terms.

The precedent of weak investigation into the Asteras case leaves the door wide open for Olympiacos, Greek champions in 17 of the past 19 years, to take their place in the Champions League this season. UEFA and its disciplinary bodies have received repeated appeals to take the threat of these alleged match-fixers entering the elite European club competitions seriously, but to no avail. With less than a week before the Champions League draw, the matter has now been referred instead to CAS.

Has there perhaps been intervention into UEFA’s disciplinary processes from its own deputy general secretary, Theodore Theodoridis? When I have asked, UEFA would not comment – due, it said, to the ongoing proceedings. But would fears over patronage here be misplaced? Theodoridis is not only a former HFF board member but is also the son of Olympiacos’s vice-president, Savvas Theodoridis.

Platini was apparently pictured in conversation with old Savvas as he enjoyed the Theodoridis’s hospitality at Mykonos in 2013 on the occasion of Theodore’s wedding. There are also pictures knocking about of him sitting at the dinner table next to Marinakis, which should at best be a bit embarrassing.

The point here is not that I think Platini is harbouring alleged match-fixers. It is that he does not appear to be taking enough care or interest in the things that really matter at UEFA.

Somebody who knows him very well indeed once said to me that Platini’s approach to governing UEFA is to drop a sugar cube into his espresso in the morning and, while he stirs it, so is the entire strategic direction of the organisation decided. It’s strategy on the hoof, by all accounts.

But then judging by what is going on right under his nose in such a critically important matter as the integrity of the Champions and Europa Leagues, he’s clearly not a details man either.

Churchill became the statesman he was because of his elephantine memory and a tremendous attention to detail. He deployed his supremely analytical mind to foresee systemic threats, and determine how to forestall them. As Churchill so memorably said, the price of greatness is responsibility. If there has been a dangerously laissez-faire attitude in Nyon, then some of the responsibility lies with its grand homme.

Football needs someone at the very top who is capable of shouldering a supreme responsibility. Because from the ruins of governance that FIFA has brought to football over the past two decades of Blatter rule, there is a genuine risk that major systemic threats – the greatest of them match-fixing – will spring. Should football entrust the defence of its realm to Platini, or seek someone from without football who is truly capable of Churchillian resolve?

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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 moc.l1719062805labto1719062805ofdlr1719062805owedi1719062805sni@t1719062805tocs.1719062805ttam1719062805.