When Sepp Blatter announced a new-look FIFA ethics committee back in March 2012, he did so to weed out corruption within his already tarnished organisation and make sure the cheats never prospered again. Little did he know at the time that he would end up being the committee’s biggest catch.
As reaction to Blatter’s eight-year ban poured in from across the globe, much of it from sympathetic supporters incredulous that it had come to this, the irony of the veteran Swiss being cast aside by the very body he helped create was worthy of any Shakespearean plot.
Plot is very much the appropriate word. Both Blatter and Michel Platini, his would-be successor also banned for eight years, seem to think there was a deliberate conspiracy against them. In Blatter’s case, to finish him off and bring an inglorious end to an era his critics feel went on far too long. In Platini’s case, to stop him running for president next May.
Really? Has Blatter conveniently forgotten that it was the Swiss ministry of justice, not the ethics committee, who first opened criminal proceedings against him? Has he forgotten too that he is also being investigated over allegations surrounding a 2005 TV rights deal between FIFA and Jack Warner, the former president of CONCACAF now banned for life?
For his part, does Platini really think Hans-Joachim Eckert and his fellow judges give a fig about who is and who isn’t running for the top job?
The ruling meted down to the two most powerful officials in world football may have sent shockwaves through the sport but it could actually have been far worse if corruption charges had stuck. If it could have been proved there was a firm link between the so-called “gentleman’s agreement” and Blatter’s 2011 election victory, both he and Platini would have been barred for much longer, possibly for life. In that sense, there is an argument to say they got off lightly.
An unshaven Blatter, looking remarkably frail and with a plaster below his right eye, the tribulations of the past months having taken their toll, clearly didn’t see it that way as he took one last opportunity to throw the kitchen sink at those who had, he said, unjustly condemned him.
It was classic Blatter but the stark fact remains that by the time the bans expire, the Swiss veteran who has ruled FIFA for the best of a generation will be 87 and his would-be successor 69. Unless the friends-turned-foes-turned friends again somehow manage to win their respective appeals at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in the coming weeks, the legacy left behind by the pair of them, just like that of so many other banned administrators, will be mixed at best and, at worst, downright ignominious.
One has to have some sympathy for Blatter, given all the work he has done to improve standards on and off the field in developing countries and his undoubted commitment to use the sport to enhance global harmony. As well as being defiant to the last, Monday’s at times rambling appearance at FIFA’s old headquarters exposed how hurt he was genuinely feeling.
Unfortunately, however, mud sticks. Blatter, for all his passionate rhetoric in front of the world’s media as the noose was finally being tightened round his neck, still couldn’t convincingly explain why the now infamous SFr2 million was paid nine years after the work was carried out. Or why his oral agreement with Platini was not lodged with the relevant FIFA bodies. “I am not an idiot,” Blatter told his packed audience at what was probably his farewell appearance, insisting the Platini payment had nothing to do with ethics. Eckert ruled it constituted direct conflict of interest and a number of other breaches to boot. Whatever it was, it was certainly a calculated, career-shattering misjudgement.
So what now? Chances are, FIFA and UEFA will survive and move on but the challenge facing both organisations cannot be under-estimated. For scandal-battered FIFA, whoever takes over from Blatter on election day on February 26 – and it won’t be Platini if the UEFA president’s ban sticks – the task of restoring pride, transparency and credibility will be unenviable. Five candidates are in the running for president and one of them will ultimately be charged with implementing the comprehensive reform package recently approved including the introduction of term limits and the scrapping the all-powerful executive committee.
No longer, under the reform proposals, will the president be able to dictate to his underlings, taking on more of a figurehead role than was the case under Blatter’s autocratic stewardship. But given FIFA’s dysfunctional state, it will take years rather than months to bring about proper, meaningful change.
UEFA’s problems are more short-term but just as pressing. While yesterday’s ruling effectively brought the curtain own on Blatter’s often tempestuous 18 years at the top, the future is in a way far bleaker and more tragic for Platini.
Blatter, under unbearable pressure in the wake of the twin US and Swiss corruption probes, was stepping down anyway in a few weeks’ time even if his hopes of departing in the manner he envisioned, with a tub-thumping speech in front of FIFA’s 209 members and a standing ovation, now rest on the appeals process.
But Platini’s meteoric rise as an administrator – expanding the Euros, introducing financial fair play, attacking third party ownership – was seemingly going in one direction, only to come crashing down to earth.
If either man is to win his appeal, it will have to happen soon since FIFA election rules state all candidates have to be finalised one month before the vote. Platini would also have to go through a strict integrity check were he to successfully pull out of this mess. That would take about a week so we are probably talking mid-January for a CAS verdict. Having already refused to lift Platini’s 90-day suspension, it would take a brave man to predict that sport’s highest court will be more lenient given the wording of the ethics committee’s hard-hitting judgement and the various breaches cited.
UEFA are in just as awkward a position as FIFA. The reality is that there is now a massive void at the helm of European football’s governing body. UEFA’s top brass are desperate to have a president in place by the time next summer’s Euros get under way. Despite the diplomatic language used in defence of their visionary leader yesterday, the fact is they are already having to face up to life without Platini.
Some bricks have already been put in place. UEFA have scrapped their March Congress in Budapest and rescheduled it for May 3, which now seems certain to become an electoral summit after giving potential candidates to succeed Platini the necessary time to campaign should the Frenchman fail to win any appeal. With UEFA General secretary Gianni Infantino, Platini’s number two, catapulted into the FIFA election race, what happens at European level is suddenly of paramount importance.
Or are we talking too soon? Like Blatter, Platini is not surplus to requirements quite yet. Like Blatter, he has pledged to fight to the end to clear his name. And like Blatter, he has always protested his innocence.
But the ethics committee’s verdict was damning in the extreme. “Mr Platini failed to act with complete credibility and integrity, showing unawareness of the importance of his duties and concomitant obligations and responsibilities,” it said.
To respond, as he has, that the verdict was a “pure masquerade” seems a sad, misguided attempt to save face. Platini may well have been incredibly naive than corrupt but he would appear, given the length of his ban, to have been treated in roughly the same way as others who have similarly transgressed.
Having said that, should he fail with his appeals, the 60-year-old’s fate will represent one of the greatest personal tragedies in football, considering that he was one of the most mercurial players of his generation. That’s how he should be remembered. Instead, he will be forever tainted by this sordid affair which will cast permanent suspicion on both the outgoing FIFA president and the man who wanted so much to be king.
Andrew Warshaw is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball and was formerly Sports Editor of the European. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org