As Sepp Blatter’s long, dubious run at FIFA’s helm appears near its conclusion this week amid a Swiss criminal investigation, his former ally-turned-likely-successor, Michel Platini, hasn’t escaped the fallout. The allegations of financial impropriety could finally unseat Blatter before FIFA’s special presidential election next February, but experts are skeptical the latest allegations against Platini will be enough to end his bid to replace his former mentor.
The FIFA executive arm's old guard is in utter disarray. Blatter, already scheduled to step down in February, Monday refused to leave office any sooner. His refusal came even as authorities investigated various allegations, including whether he willfully mishandled a FIFA media rights deal and the circumstances behind a $2 million payment to Platini in 2011. The FIFA Ethics Committee is conducting its own investigation into their actions. Critics are openly questioning how Blatter can remain in office when he is the target of a criminal investigation -- and whether Platini is a fit candidate to replace him.
While Blatter and Platini have each denied any wrongdoing, the public fallout should, under normal circumstances, be enough to deliver a death blow to Platini’s bid to spearhead reform as FIFA’s next president. But with FIFA’s election still months away and the organization’s murky history of dealing with corruption at its highest levels, it will come as no surprise if Platini stays in the race.
“I think he’s very damaged, but being damaged in this organization -- really, it doesn’t matter,” David Larkin, an international sports law attorney and co-director of the Change FIFA watchdog group, said. “It’s like being damaged in the mob -- yeah, you have a terrible reputation, but when has that ever stopped anyone in FIFA from advancing? Never.”
This was my full time job, everyone was aware I was doing it. And NINE years later, they paid me. pic.twitter.com/8BuzikKYB8
— Tom Peck (@tompeck) September 28, 2015
Public outcry against widespread corruption among FIFA executives has exploded since last May, when a U.S. Justice Department investigation led to the unprecedented arrests of nine current and former FIFA executives on corruption and bribery charges. Blatter escaped the initial wave of arrests, but he has remained under investigation by American and Swiss authorities ever since. Facing international pressure, Blatter relinquished his role as FIFA’s president last June, just days after winning re-election. At the time, he vowed to formally leave office after the special election in February 2016, and only after he had personally overseen the organization’s efforts at self-reform.
But Switzerland’s attorney general wasn’t willing to wait that long. Authorities are investigating Blatter on “suspicion of criminal mismanagement and misappropriation.” Swiss police carried out a raid on Blatter’s office and interrogated him on actions involving Platini.
Thus far, the case centers on two major allegations. First, that Blatter gave a media rights contract to Jack Warner, a former FIFA vice president who was among those indicted last May, at far below market value and to FIFA’s detriment. And second, that Blatter gave Platini a “disloyal payment” of about $2 million in 2011, ostensibly for work that was completed nearly a decade before, when Platini was still Blatter’s technical advisor. The Telegraph noted Platini withdrew from the FIFA presidential race in 2011 shortly after receiving the payment, though authorities have yet to make that connection.
Blatter’s representatives made it clear Monday he has no intention of stepping down, despite continuing investigations into his activities by both Swiss authorities and the FIFA Ethics Committee, adding that the “Platini matter” was a payment for legitimate work. Platini offered a similar explanation and purportedly gave authorities documents that sought to prove its legitimacy.
“President Blatter spoke to FIFA staff today and informed the staff that he was cooperating with the authorities, reiterated that he had done nothing illegal or improper, and stated he would remain president of FIFA,” Blatter’s lawyer Richard Cullen said in a statement, according to ESPN. “On the Platini matter, President Blatter on Friday shared with the Swiss authorities the fact that Mr. Platini had a valuable employment relationship with FIFA serving as an adviser to the president beginning in 1998. He explained to the prosecutors that the payments were valid compensation and nothing more, and were properly accounted for within FIFA, including the withholding of Social Security contributions.”
Blatter’s refusal to immediately leave office is not altogether surprising, Larkin said, as any surprise resignation could be construed as an admission of guilt. Moreover, Blatter so far has escaped prosecution by avoiding connection to the exact sort of “on-paper” corruption Swiss authorities are currently pursuing.
“He’s pretty smart," Larkin said. "It’s hard for me to believe that he’d be stupid this late in the game, but maybe he was.”
At the same time, it would be a surprise if the FIFA Ethics Committee chose not to act against Blatter, given its recent track record. FIFA officials this month suspended Jerome Valcke, the organization’s secretary general and Blatter’s righthand man, amid allegations he sought to personally profit from the sale of World Cup tickets above face value. It’s hard to see how Blatter will escape similar treatment.
“Everyone else, from [banned former FIFA executive] Mohamed bin Hammam to Jerome Valcke, has been suspended upon allegations,” Roger Pielke Jr., an expert on FIFA’s corruption scandal and a professor at the University of Colorado, said. “Valcke hasn’t been found guilty of anything, but he was suspended. If they were to allow Blatter to remain and everyone else plays by different rules -- number one, it’s typical FIFA. But on the other hand, it would be a surprise.”
What’s less clear is how the allegations will affect Platini. He is currently listed as a witness in the Swiss probe into Blatter, and it’s unclear if he’ll face a separate investigation.
As sitting president of the Union of European Football Associations and a member of FIFA’s executive committee, Platini is one of the international soccer community’s most powerful figures. Prior to last week’s allegations, he was considered the clear favorite to win the special election in February. By Sunday, oddsmakers had decided Platini would likely lose, Reuters reported.
With sponsor and public scrutiny at an all-time high, FIFA appears desperate to shed its reputation as a hopelessly corrupt organization and keep the money train rolling. If Platini’s name continues to be associated with criminal probes and shady exchanges of money, it’s unlikely he’ll escape the pre-election vetting process unscathed.
Then again, FIFA is the same organization that re-elected Blatter this year mere hours after several of its most powerful executives were simultaneously arrested.
“FIFA continuously tests the limits of our imagination,” Pielke said.