SEPP Blatter and Michel Platini, the two most powerful officials in world football, are unlikely to sleep easily in their beds tonight as they await arguably the most significant and far-reaching judgment in the entire FIFA corruption scandal.
Barring the most unexpected of surprises, some time on Monday morning, almost certainly by lunch, FIFA’s ethics committee will announce their eagerly awaited verdict into whether the under-fire veteran FIFA president and his would-be successor are guilty of financial corruption and should be the thrown out of the game, sending FIFA into total freefall over the holiday period despite the recent much-trumpeted reform package designed to clean up the scandal-plagued organisation.
Both Blatter and Platini, provisionally suspended since early October, deny any wrongdoing over the undeclared £1.35 million “disloyal payment” made to Platini in 2011 for consultancy work he carried out on behalf of Blatter nine years earlier.
They say it was entirely above board and that there was a verbal agreement. That may be binding in Switzerland yet, significantly, such an agreement allegedly only covered part of the disputed sum – not all of it. And anyway under Swiss law outstanding payments have to be completed within five years of being agreed.
Ethics investigators are rock solid in their opinion that breaches were made by both Blatter and Platini. It is understood the file against them exceeded 50 pages and called for sanctions for allegedly no fewer than four ethics code breaches including conflict of interest and false accounting by not reporting the payment until four years ago.
It is the timing of the backdated salary to Platini that has raised such suspicion, coming as it did just as Blatter was preparing for a presidential election challenge in 2011 against Asian football chief Mohamed bin Hammam. During the campaign, Bin Hammam acknowledged he was ready to discuss a power-sharing deal with Platini as a condition of securing European votes. The Qatari never made the starting post after he withdrew because of the cash-for-votes scandal in the Caribbean and UEFA urged its voting members weeks before the June ballot to side with Blatter.
Now it is up to FIFA’s German ethics judge Hans-Joachim Eckert to decide how seriously the pair transgressed and what punishment to dish out. The normal sanction for conflict of interest is anything between four and seven years, though if corruption is proved, it could stretch to life. Or anything in between.
For weeks, both parties have at been at pains to protest their innocence. Blatter has even suggested that the very committee he helped create did not have the power to bring him down. Last week, just as his full hearing got under way and almost as if he knew the writing was on the wall, he wrote an impassioned letter on his own personal stationary to all FIFA’s 209 member associations saying he was “bewildered by the insinuations and accusations” and insisting the infamous payment was put through the correct channels at the correct time.
But if the omens don’t look good for Blatter, who is standing down anyway on 26 February after 18 tempestuous years in charge as a result of the US and Swiss corruption probes that have snared a significant number of his long-time colleagues, they look even worse for Platini. On Friday the Frenchman, angry and disappointed at having been forced to miss last weekend’s gala draw for the Euro 2016 finals taking place in his backyard, boycotted his own ethics hearing, dismissing the panel as a kangaroo court that had already made up its mind to throw the book at him, and left it to his lawyers to try to clear his name.
Before turning up, they, in turn, denounced the process against Platini as a “Kafkaesque trial” insisting there was “a clear willingness to do everything to prevent” him from running for the FIFA presidency.
It wasn’t, according to those familiar with the case, the smartest of moves. Platini recently lost his appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport against his current provisional 90-day suspension. Putting forward in person a convincing case for acquittal might just have lessened the blow against him, they suggest.
Instead, like Blatter, Platini, a three-time European Footballer of Year and one of the most recognisable figures in the game, faces being plunged into the footballing wilderness, almost certainly bringing the curtain down on a career that seemed to be going in only one direction.
If, as expected, Monday’s verdicts go against him, not only will Platini have to give up his bid for FIFA’s top job, but in one fell swoop will also be stripped of his UEFA presidency.
The process will not end there, of course. A succession of appeals seem likely but whether they will be able save Platini, until recently a shoo-in to replace his mentor-turned-foe, is seriously questionable.
It is understood that the main case against both Blatter and Platini is one of conflict of interest. That was the same breach cited in the seven-year ban meted out in July to Harold Mayne-Nicholls, the Chilean who headed the 2018 and 2022 World Cup inspection teams, and to South Korea’s former FIFA vice-president Chung Mong-joon who got six years and saw his own hopes of replacing Blatter dashed. “This should give you some kind of idea about how long any ban might be,” said an ethics source. “But it could be even longer if the suspicion of falsification of accounts is proved. That’s criminal behaviour in Switzerland.”
Platini’s candidacy is currently on hold pending a final outcome but looks doomed to end in failure.
“It’s far harder to win an appeal when an investigation is complete and all the information has been analysed,” said another ethics insider.
One serious knock-on effect is the massive void that would be left at the helm of European football’s governing body. UEFA’s top brass are desperate to have a president in place by the time their flagship European Championship finals get under way in June and are taking the most diplomatic strategy they can without showing disloyalty to their leader.
UEFA have already scrapped their March congress in Budapest and rescheduled it for 3 May, giving potential candidates to succeed Platini the necessary time to campaign should the Frenchman be banned and fail to win any appeal. UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino, who has put himself forward to replace Blatter as a stand-in for Platini, refuses to entertain the idea that his own boss could have to be replaced as well. Yet that is clearly behind the move to switch the date of their congress. “The executive committee supports Michel’s right to a fair process,” says Infantino. “Obviously it’s a difficult situation. It’s complicated for Michel and for the institution.”
You can say that again.