Thursday, May 12, 2016

Platini's Fall to Earth

THE GREAT FRENCHMAN'S FOOTBALL LIFE IS NOW HISTORY

Michel Platini's football career looks finished and whatever the circumstances, the sport has lost a major figure.

Platini's Fall to Earth.


Even if he was corrupt and untrustworthy, his status as one of the greatest footballers of the modern era and the greatest French player of all time means his exit stage left from the game is tinged with a little melancholy.

This week the former UEFA President resigned from that organisation after his appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport only reduced his FIFA-imposed ban on footballing activities to four years instead of clearing him as he had hoped.

Platini was banned for eight years last December for accepting a payment of £1.3 million from FIFA President Sepp Blatter in 2011 without proper paperwork.

The pair had claimed there had been a gentleman's agreement in place for Blatter to pay Platini for consultancy work he had performed between 1998 and 2002, but prosecutors instead believed the pair were putting their hands in the FIFA till and Blatter was using the money to grease the wheels of power a few months before his presidential election.

It is remarkable how Platini ruined his otherwise excellent chances of becoming the chief of world soccer– his golden playing career had made him universally admired outside the corridors of power while within Zurich he was valued as head of UEFA and a loyal Blatterite.

As he ascended the greasy pole at FIFA he carried the benefit of fans' doubt because unlike the rest of the world governing body's hierarchy, Franz Beckenbauer excluded, he had been a player, and a great one too. He was in effect a golden shoe-in for the top job in football.

How sad that for now his amazing playing career - winning the European Championship scoring nine goals in five games, bagging the European Cup, Cup Winners' Cup, Ligue 1, two Serie A titles, Coupe de France, Coppa Italia and three Ballons D'Or, is sent far into the shadows while his tainted footballing political career implodes before our eyes.

His playing prowess will probably never be forgotten but his descent into FIFA corruption is a bitter coda to his otherwise glittering soccer life.

On the other hand, Platini probably only has himself to blame for inserting himself in the hierarchy of the sinking ship skippered by Sepp and partaking in their nefarious deeds.

His faux-pas in recent years had been so calamitous, football fans had begun anyway to question the maestro's sanity.

It was ubiquitously assumed having a real football man at the helm would end the madness of the Blatter years' perennial tinkering (golden goal, silver goal, 32-team World Cup etc) and craven obeisance to corporate demands (kicking off USA '94 at noon local time for instance or handing sponsors huge swathes of World Cup tickets).

While lizards like Jack Warner and Ricardo Teixeira still stalked the corridors of FIFA, a new broom in the shape of a great no-nonsense footballer it was felt would start the clean-up of the Augean stables with aplomb.

Alas, like a newly-elected government who stutter and stumble before the public finally loses patience, Platini began issuing edicts from Zurich which confused and eventually angered the constituencies of football fans who had previously backed his ascent.

After it had been widely accepted that the World Cup's expansion to 32 teams had done nothing to improve the quality of the tournament, polluting the first round in particular with minnows and dead rubbers, in 2008 Platini bizarrely blazed ahead with a plan to expand the 2016 European Championship to 24 finalists.

That was all well and good for the likes of Albania, Iceland, Wales and Northern Ireland who will get a rare outing in the finals of a major tournament next month, but the bloated Euros will resemble the qualifiers now instead of the intense quality tournament it always was. The need to accommodate 24 teams meant a host nation now needed at least ten good-sized stadia, which meant the sad end of smaller host nations like Sweden in 1992, and a greater probability of joint organisers like Belgium & the Netherlands in 2000.

Single-nation hosting always makes for a better atmosphere.

Behind the expansion there seemed to be a desire to ape the World Cup and for UEFA to challenge FIFA in prestige on the international level, with the richest club competition the Champions League already under its belt.

As a journalist at Euro 2008 I sensed something like this was in the air amid the swathes of UEFA banners and logos adorning the press facilities.

As if the format could not be damaged further, in 2012 Platini announced the 2020 finals would take place in 12 different countries (!?!) , ending the noble tradition of a host nation whose character imprinted itself upon the tournament and the supporters.

No-one knows how this apparent farrago will turn out but it is unlikely the atmosphere and spirit engendered by one-nation tournaments like Italia '90 or Euro '96 will be anything comparable when one has to jet between Baku and Glasgow.

If he received an invisible talking-to for the initial expansion, he saw yellow for the Euro 2020 debacle and received his marching orders for his unfathomable opposition to goal-line TV replays.

Even after such high-profile cause celebres such as Frank Lampard's goal against Germany at South Africa 2010, Platini insisted human eyes were better and UEFA competitions now enjoy two extra linesmen bizarrely standing behind each goal instead of the reliable technology of a laser or camera.

After that blunder, Platini was then considered not a reformer or a saviour but a mad and uncontrollable king by the majority of fans, an impression only bolstered by his blustering press conferences where his gallic storm of bloody-mindedness was on full display.

At a meeting in Warsaw to herald Euro 2012, I remember a flustered Platini responding to what must be said was an irrelevant question from a tabloid hack from England, a country he never had much time for, with the flippant rebuff,

"Je m'en fous" - I don't give a toss.

But his contempt for the rules and relish of being a talented maverick would eventually catch up with him.

He might have finally been banned for trousering FIFA cash from his mentor Blatter but it was really his support for Qatar 2022 which finally did for him in any doubters' eyes.

The fact a former footballer could have advocated a World Cup in a place either with 50C temperatures or in the middle of a domestic season beggared belief, especially for a man who introduced the integrated international calendar.

When it came out he had been turned at a high profile dinner with French President Nicolas Sarkozy it was clear Platini was not only not his own man but also rash and foolhardy to boot.

His subsequently vocal defence of choosing Qatar only rubber-stamped the lunatic label on his forehead. His son's business interests in Qatar also created a whiff of self-interest. With the CAS judgment, which branded him "not ethical or loyal," he finally was made to pay for his crazy years at the helm of UEFA and role in the house of corruption that was Blatters' FIFA regime.

This year the Euros returns to France, scene of Platini's finest hour as a player in 1984 when he captained his team to glory, scoring nine goals along the way.

In 1998 he enjoyed his heyday as an administrator when the World Cup finals he had masterminded ended again with a glorious French triumph in Paris.

Les Bleus have a strong team this year and will be among the favourites again for the trophy.

But the talisman of French football will be watching at home on television, raging against the dying of his light.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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