THE Scottish FA last night called for more evidence in the FIFA corruption scandal before it decides whether to abandon support for Michel Platini to become the next president.
Revelations that Platini received a £1.3 million payment in February, 2011, for unidentified work he carried out for Sepp Blatter threatens to shatter his dream of taking over from the beleaguered Swiss next February.
Blatter’s controversial 17-year tenure hangs by a thread after criminal proceedings were opened against him by Swiss justice authorities on Friday. With FIFA’s corruption crisis reaching breaking point and his credibility shot to pieces, Blatter is understood to be seriously considering whether to throw in the towel rather than limp on for another five months.
As well as being suspected of criminal mismanagement or misappropriation over a TV rights deal he signed with former Caribbean football chief Jack Warner in 2005, Blatter is also suspected of paying a so-called “disloyal payment” of two million Swiss francs to Platini for consultancy work carried out by the Frenchman between 1999 and 2002 when he was Blatter’s technical adviser.
The fact the money was not paid for another nine years, by which time Platini had taken over at UEFA, is a complete mystery and has led to serious questions about whether there was a hidden agenda. The sum was paid shortly before Blatter was elected FIFA president for the fourth time.
Platini has vehemently denied any wrongdoing and says the payment was completely above board and made under contract. But a dark shadow has already been cast over his FIFA presidential aspirations. The fact that both Blatter and Platini have been named by the Swiss attorney general’s office raises the possibility that both might be referred to FIFA’s ethics committee and risk suspension pending the outcome of further inquiries.
Last night, SFA chief executive Stewart Regan said it was too early to say whether the SFA would withdraw its backing for the Frenchman. “I was surprised, given what Blatter had been saying [about being clean and co-operating with inquiries] about the timing of the Swiss announcement,” Regan said, “but perhaps even more surprising was that comments were made about other people, including Michel Platini.
“But before people jump to conclusions we need more clarity. We have announced we are backing Platini but we to get more information. At that point the board will sit down and discuss it. We need to know what the background is because there is no detail in terms of what this payment relates to. If it’s perfectly above board why is there an issue? Clearly there’s more to it than that. Do I find it odd that the payment was made nine years after the commission? Yes I do which is why we need more information.
“The entire saga is not good news for football with FIFA being dragged through the mud. It needs to rebuild its reputation globally. From our perspective it’s important that we get clarity and facts. I’m sure people in Switzerland will be taking the necessary steps to get those facts.”
FIFA insiders believe Platini has, at best, some serious explaining to do and, at worst, could find himself being investigated like Blatter or even suspended. One of his executive committee colleagues described as “inexplicable” the length of time before he was paid. “If it’s wrongful to give the money, then surely it’s wrongful to accept it,” the member said.
Having been dragged into sport’s worst ever corruption crisis, Platini’s credentials have also been seized upon by his critics as evidence that the organisation needs fresh leadership rather than someone tainted by the past.
“We cannot change the past, but we can have a future where FIFA member associations are able to focus on football rather than worrying about the next scandal or criminal investigation involving FIFA leadership,” said Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan who was beaten 133-73 by Blatter in May but is running again – this time against Platini, his one-time ally with whom he has fallen out big-time. “FIFA… has been shaken to its very core by the scandals that have decimated our governing body and cast a cloud over the entire organisation,” he added.
Meanwhile it is highly likely Blatter will step down voluntarily rather than face suspension by FIFA’s ethics committee, the only body apart from the entire FIFA membership that can get rid of him. The fact that the veteran Swiss was not arrested is an indication, according to ethics sources, that there was not enough direct evidence to force him out of office despite criminal proceedings being opened. “Without sufficient evidence, he cannot be suspended,” said one high-ranking source, “but you can bet this is being sought by the relevant authorities.”
Whether the ethics committee will ultimately have the courage to throw out the most powerful man in world football is one of many intriguing questions. Jerome Valcke, “relieved of his duties” as secretary-general for his alleged involvement in a ticketing scam (which he denies) was not punished by ethics prosecutors but by Blatter himself with the approval of FIFA’s emergency committee. Valcke was the subject of unsubstantiated claims by a private ticketing consultant. Blatter, on the other hand, is under criminal investigation, a far more serious situation on paper.
How long it takes for the ethics committee to act is anyone’s guess but the ignominy of Friday’s unprecedented humiliation, when Blatter had to call off an eagerly awaited press conference to be questioned by Swiss prosecutors and had his office searched, must have been a distinctly uncomfortable experience.
Equally unpalatable is the immediate future if and when he does call it a day before the scheduled election. On an interim basis, Issa Hayatou, as FIFA’s senior vice-president, would step into Blatter’s shoes, a man himself tainted with corruption having been caught up in a scandal related to suspected bribes paid by FIFA’s collapsed marketing partner ISL in 2000. Hayatou was reprimanded by the International Olympic Committee but FIFA took no action.
All of which leaves FIFA in a state of total meltdown, just as many observers predicted once the US authorities issued their bombshell allegations of wire fraud, money laundering and racketeering to the tune $150m stretching back two decades. Last week, both the US justice department and their Swiss counterparts warned that more developments were likely following the arrests of those 14 senior footballing and marketing officials. Right up until Friday, in his column for FIFA’s in-house magazine, Blatter, the great survivor, offered his support and banged the drum for total reform. Little did he know that his own head was about to be placed on the block.
He was still, at the time of writing, an innocent man. But in a rapidly developing story, there is surely now no hiding place.