In World Cup year, the men who used to run football stand trial

Bellinzona is a beautiful town in southern Switzerland, not far from the Italian border. It is famous for its three castles, which is apt as it has also been the venue for what the local media has dubbed the sports trial of the century: the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland against Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini.

Three castles: one for the codefendants, one for world football’s governing body FIFA and one for Switzerland itself.

Because all three have been in the dock, in one way or another.

This might not be the comeuppance some football fans think Blatter and Platini deserve but it is the most serious one they face. And if Blatter and Platini are ever to restore their reputations, even partially, they need this to go their way. This matters, all right.

The Swiss authorities charged the pair with fraud, mismanagement, misappropriation of FIFA funds and forgery of a document in November 2021, six and a half years after they started investigating them as part of the sprawling international probe kickstarted by that infamous dawn raid at the Baur au Lac hotel.

The luxury venue on the shores of Lake Zurich was packed with hundreds of football administrators on May 27, 2015, as the following day was FIFA’s annual congress, where Blatter would stand for a fifth term as president. He would win the vote but the celebrations were somewhat spoiled by the fact that seven members of his executive committee had been bundled into vehicles with darkened windows by men with guns, while hotel staff tried to hide them from photographers by holding up bed linen.

A week later, Blatter announced his intention to stand down — unless, of course, FIFA’s membership could persuade him to stay with a resounding vote of confidence. It was never given that chance.

Four months on, the Swiss authorities announced they were investigating Blatter and Platini for a suspicious payment of two million Swiss francs (£1.7 million) FIFA made to the Frenchman in January 2011, not long before Blatter was elected for a fourth term, unopposed.

By that point, Platini had come a long way from running matches for Nancy, Saint-Etienne, Juventus and France; he was now running European football as president of UEFA and had become one of the game’s kingmakers. He was also widely tipped to be Blatter’s successor.

But in October 2015, more than four and a half years after that one-off payment landed in Platini’s account, the pair were suspended by FIFA pending an investigation of the organisation’s ethics committee.

Two months later, FIFA gave them eight-year bans from football, which were reduced to six years on appeal in February 2016. That same month, Gianni Infantino, then UEFA’s secretary general, got the top job at FIFA — not his boss, Platini. (More on that later.)

This case hinges on that payment.

Was it, as Blatter and Platini have been claiming for seven years, a belated settling of a debt the former owed the latter for consultancy work provided during Blatter’s first term as FIFA boss from 1999 to 2002?

Or was it, as the Swiss authorities and FIFA suggest, an illegal payment intended to make sure Platini delivered the votes Blatter needed to see off an expected challenge from Asian Football Confederation chief Mohamed bin Hammam for football’s top job?

And how did the authorities know to look for that payment of two million Swiss francs?

Blatter once described himself as the captain of the ship at FIFA, and he and the organisation he led for 18 years are still in the same boat. His successor Infantino has spent the last six years repeating the mantra that he skippers something called “new FIFA” and it is a very different vessel to Blatter’s “old FIFA”.

If that is to become more than a slogan, the verdict is significant.

And FIFA is far from being alone when it comes to Swiss-based sports federations that have had difficult decades. Doping and financial scandals have dogged the governing bodies of boxing, cycling, several winter sports and the International Olympic Committee itself.

Are all these sports bodies based in Switzerland for a reason?

Three castles that must hold the line.

Bellinzona’s Federal Criminal Court of Switzerland is housed in a building which looks like the White House: tidy, symmetrical, neoclassical.

It is Tuesday, June 21, the 10th of 11 scheduled days for the trial but everyone in attendance has been told if all goes smoothly, and nobody minds a late lunch, we could wrap it up today.

Blatter, Platini and their legal teams arrive soon after the doors open at 8.30am and take their seats in the main courtroom.

Blatter, now 86, is sat in the front row, next to his lawyer Lorenz Erni, a scholarly chap who once defended the film director Roman Polanski. Blatter’s daughter Corinne is two rows back.

Blatter greeted everyone in the room, including the prosecution. He is stooped and moves slowly these days but is wearing a fashionable blue suit and still has a twinkle in his eye. As an aside, one of the funnier moments of the trial came when a former FIFA staffer was asked when she had last heard from Blatter. She said he sent her a Valentine’s message in February. She had not seen him for years.

Platini, sat with three lawyers in the row of desks immediately behind Blatter, is looking less happy to be here — it is his 67th birthday, after all — but he says hello to his old mentor and Corinne, and nods towards the handful of journalists who have covered every cough and spit of the case. He does not, however, acknowledge the opposition.

At 9am on the dot — it is Switzerland — presiding judge Josephine Contu Albrizio sweeps in, flanked by two other judges. There are 29 people in the room: 13 lawyers, three judges, two clerks and 11 assorted friends, journalists and observers.

Today is about closing arguments and final statements.

Swiss prosecutor Thomas Hildbrand goes first and speaks for an hour. You might think he was giving a talk about the Ticino valley’s flora and fauna, so calm was his delivery. But he was actually giving Blatter and Platini a pasting.

A week before, when he first laid out his case, Hildbrand told the judges the prosecution is seeking suspended 20-month sentences. That means they will walk out of the court’s front door whatever happens when the verdict is announced but they could do so with criminal convictions and the threat of incarceration hanging over them.

Next up is Catherine Hohl-Chirazi. The Geneva-based lawyer is representing FIFA, which has joined the criminal case as a civil litigant. Put simply, FIFA wants its money back. She speaks for 75 minutes but provides a slide show on the large screen at the front of the court.

The three key slides are the written contract Blatter and Platini signed in 1999 (annual salary, 300,000 Swiss francs [£256,000] and no mention of any side deals), the friendly note Blatter wrote to his “cher ami” in 2002 when Platini was elected to the executive committees of both UEFA and FIFA and could therefore no longer be his personal advisor, and finally the invoice Platini sent to FIFA nine years later for his back pay.

Both Hildbrand and Hohl-Chirazi spoke in German, with those not fluent in German legalese listening to a French translation via headphones. Platini cannot speak German but did not listen to a word of the case against him.

He did, however, put his headphones on to hear Blatter’s lawyer Erni take half an hour to call the prosecution and FIFA cases “absurd”, and then his own lawyer, Dominic Nellen, pose eight questions for the judges to consider, all of which, he believes, exonerate his client.

And then it was the defendants’ chance to speak.

Unlike the previous four speakers, Blatter delivers his statement from his chair, not the lectern in the middle of the courtroom, but the longer he speaks, the more animated he becomes.

Speaking in the German of his native canton Valais, which borders Italian-speaking Ticino to the west, Blatter tells the judges he is shocked it has come to this; accused of being a liar, a fraud, a forger. He reminds them he has given his life to football and has been an ambassador for Switzerland, meeting monarchs, popes and presidents. He mentions that one of his many honorary titles is commander in the Swiss army.

Blatter finishes by telling them he is confident justice will prevail and “my conscience is clear”. His shock seems genuine but he also sounds like someone who believes they are above the law.

Platini, on the other hand, just sounds annoyed. Speaking in French, he says: “I did not get involved in French, European and global football institutions to find myself before the federal criminal court.” Particularly on his birthday.

He points out he never received a red card during his playing career, something he and his father were proud of, and says it is not nice to be accused of these things when you are a grandfather. Like Blatter, he finishes by saying he is confident the court “will restore the truth and wash away all that has been tarnished for these seven long years”.

His statement lasts less than five minutes, half of which is taken up by the translator relaying it, line by line, in German. Once he has returned to his seat, Contu Albrizio thanks everyone for the four and a half hours we have spent in the light, airy courtroom, says she will deliver the panel’s verdict at 10am on Friday, July 8, and leaves.

Blatter, his daughter and Erni go out first and, despite Corinne’s best efforts to get him home pronto, he cannot pass a microphone without stopping.

Platini hangs back, letting the older man have his moment, and then gives an upbeat assessment of what has happened, before breaking off for selfies with two Juve fans who happened to be passing. “Am I bothered?” is the vibe.

The sports trial of the century is over.

If you care about how the world’s favourite sport is run, you need to understand how these two men got here, why they face these particular charges and what will happen if they are convicted or cleared.

Blatter started working for FIFA in 1975 when he was 39. He had previously been head of public relations for Valais, a marketing man for watchmaker Longines and general secretary for the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation. He became FIFA’s general secretary in 1981, a position he held for 17 years.

His boss for this entire period was Joao Havelange, an Olympic swimmer from Brazil who became a lawyer and then the most powerful man in global football.

Havelange died in 2016, aged 100, four years after the Swiss authorities revealed he and his son-in-law, Ricardo Teixeira, the former Brazilian Football Association president, had taken more than £21 million in bribes connected to the awarding of World Cup marketing rights.

But in 1998, Blatter, the insider, beat off a challenge from UEFA president Lennart Johansson to succeed Havelange. Blatter’s manifesto, if that is the right word, was more, more, more. More World Cup berths for developing football nations, more World Cups outside the game’s European and South American heartlands, and more “development” money for FIFA’s 200-plus member associations.

And he delivered on all of those game-growing and vote-winning promises.

He also managed to frequently outrage people with sexist remarks about female footballers or by glossing over scandals. He was a shameless self-promoter, with designs on a Nobel Peace Prize.

But despite all that, the view from most close observers of FIFA during his tenure was that he was primarily interested in being president of FIFA, not enriching himself. There was also a feeling that his heart was in the right place, there or thereabouts, and he was right to take the World Cup to Japan, South Korea, South Africa and, eventually, Russia, although that decision does not look so good now.

We need not waste too many words explaining what an amazing footballer Platini was. He was the best dribbler, finisher and passer on every team he played for and he played for France and Juventus, who both won European championships. OK, he did not tackle much but they did not call him “Le Roi” (“The King”) for nothing.

A year after retiring as a player, he became manager of France when his predecessor, Henri Michel, was sacked for failing to get them to the 1990 World Cup. Under their former captain, France won all eight of their qualifying matches for the 1992 Euros, as part of a 19-game unbeaten run. They went into the tournament as favourites but crashed out in the first round.

So, he moved into football administration. His first gig was co-leading France’s preparations for hosting the 1998 World Cup. He also served on UEFA’s technical development committee, where it became clear he had ambitions beyond most former footballers.

This brings us to his partnership with Blatter.

In court this month, it was said Blatter could not afford to pay Platini the “million” he wanted — “pesetas, liras, rubles, marks, you decide”, is how Platini described their negotiations — because FIFA was not the multibillion-dollar enterprise it is now. Blatter suggested he pay Platini the same amount FIFA’s general secretary got, 300,000 Swiss francs (£256,000) a year and they make a verbal “gentleman’s agreement” to round that up to one million Swiss francs (£850,000) per annum at a later date.

Blatter also told the court that Platini was worth it. And he probably was to Blatter, a new president trying to emerge from Havelange’s shadow.

But then Platini wanted to come out from Blatter’s shadow. Their consultancy relationship ended in 2002, when Platini was elected to UEFA’s ExCo and given one of Europe’s places on FIFA’s supreme decision-making body. Five years later, it was Platini’s turn to defeat Johansson in a close election, becoming the first former pro to be UEFA boss.

By now, relations between the two had cooled slightly — the FIFA/UEFA rivalry is one of football’s fiercest — but Platini was busy promoting his own vision for European football, so there were no big public spats. Platini’s rows were with Europe’s richest clubs and biggest leagues, as he favoured a more egalitarian game, where the likes of Nancy and Saint-Etienne could compete for European trophies and English clubs had to use English players.

But in 2011, Blatter needed Platini again.

Emboldened by Qatar’s bid for the 2022 World Cup, former Qatar FA chief Bin Hammam decided to take on Blatter. Without the incumbent’s ability to dish out development grants and well-expensed jobs on committees, the Qatari handed out bribes.

And he nearly pulled it off. Blatter, however, was able to convince Platini and Trinidad and Tobago’s Jack Warner to deliver the bloc votes of UEFA and CONCACAF, the confederation that represents football in North and Central America.

It might be a complete coincidence but the Swiss authorities are also investigating an unexplained payment from Blatter to Warner, who was banned from football for life in 2015 but denies any wrong-doing and is currently fighting extradition to the US where he faces wire fraud, racketeering and money laundering charges, at around the same time as the Platini payment.

As it happened, Bin Hammam read the room and pulled out before the vote, leaving Blatter unopposed, and six months later the Qatari was banned from football for life.

Shortly before that 2011 coronation, however, Blatter and Platini had a meeting. The prosecution and FIFA’s lawyers allege this meeting was to decide quite how much Platini’s support was worth. FIFA’s then-general secretary Jerome Valcke, another disgraced former football boss, claims Platini initially wanted four million Swiss francs (£3.4 million)

A plan, it is claimed, was then cooked up for the Frenchman to submit an invoice to FIFA, claiming the two million Swiss francs (£1.7 million) were the balance of what he was owed between 1999 and 2002.

Platini told the court he had actually forgotten he was only paid 300,000 Swiss francs a year and that by telling him to invoice them for just two million Swiss francs in 2011, they were fleecing him.

His explanation for waiting nine years to collect this debt was that he did not need the money and he trusted the FIFA president to honour his word. He said he only reminded Blatter to do the right thing when he found out how much two departing executives were paid in 2010, one of whom was former French diplomat Jerome Champagne, a man Platini detests.

Any suggestion Platini was doing anything other than collecting an IOU, that had been freely agreed by two upstanding citizens, was dismissed by Nellen, his lawyer, as fantasy and the “stupidest scam in the world”. After all, Nellen claimed, lots of people were aware they had a side deal, he invoiced FIFA for the amount owed and paid 800,000 Swiss francs (£680,000) of tax on it.

When it was their turn to answer these claims, Hildbrand and Hohl-Chirazi observed that nobody at FIFA was aware of any oral agreement, it was nonsense to suggest FIFA could not afford to pay him after 2002, the sum of two million Swiss francs was 800,000 Swiss francs less than Platini claims to have been owed and the timing of it was all so convenient.

That last point was not really hammered home, though, which enabled both Erni and Nellen to claim the prosecution had failed to come up with a motive for the payment. Hildbrand and Hohl-Chirazi, however, simply countered that they do not need a motive. They said it was an illegal payment, unsupported by any documentation, and that is enough to prove their case.

But the issue of the documentation, and how the Swiss authorities found that invoice amid the bundles of documents they seized in 2015, is one of the most interesting elements in the case. Discussions about it dominated the middle part of the trial.

The prosecution claims they found it in a bundle of papers detailing all payments made to ExCo members going back years, but was this one flagged up by persons unspecified?

The evidence from the courtroom was inconclusive. One witness appeared to suggest it was found in a cabinet in Blatter’s office, while another seemed to suggest the original investigator was given a gentle nudge.

For Platini, there is no doubt. His entire defence is based on the premise that Infantino, his former deputy, stole the FIFA presidency.

Referring to a series of meetings — without any minutes to show from them — Infantino had with former Swiss attorney-general Michael Lauber between 2015 and 2017, Platini and his lawyer painted a picture of a grand conspiracy to rob him of football’s top job. FIFA’s ethics committee has cleared Infantino of any wrongdoing related to those meetings but Lauber was forced to resign and a separate Swiss federal investigation is still looking at them. Infantino and Lauber both deny they have done anything wrong.

Both Hildbrand and Hohl-Chirazi poured scorn on Platini’s claims, dismissing them as a desperate attempt to muddy the waters.

But while neither Blatter nor his lawyer chose to pursue this line of attack in court, Corinne Blatter is adamant about the identity of the main instigator of her father’s troubles.

“We don’t think it’s FIFA,” she tells The Athletic. “We think it is one man: the current president of FIFA.

“We didn’t talk about this in court but we agree with Platini. And don’t forget, he lost more than my father. He lost the presidency.

“The question we keep asking ourselves is ‘who provided the tip-off?’ Who told (former prosecutor Olivier) Thormann exactly where to look for one invoice for two million?

“I have no idea why Infantino is trying to destroy my dad. We have tried to contact him. He grew up only seven kilometres from Visp (where Blatter was born and still has a home). One day I will ask him why he has done this.”

In the meantime, she will have to make do with the response FIFA’s lawyer Hohl-Chirazi gave us when we raised Platini’s theory.

“These are just inventions from the defence to avoid discussing the facts,” she says.

“FIFA brought a civil action against both Blatter and Platini to have the money that was illegally misappropriated repaid so it can be used for the purpose for which it was originally intended: football.”

The Athletic understands FIFA intends, if Blatter and Platini are convicted, to go after one or both of them for the £1.1 million in interest that payment would have accrued over the last 11 years.

And, as the court heard, Blatter still has assets of £12.5 million, and Platini’s personal wealth is close to £11 million.

While Platini had to make do with a salary of roughly £250,000 20 years ago, he still managed to invoice FIFA nearly four times that amount every year by including bonuses and expenses, and Blatter’s ban from football was extended by another six years in 2021 when it emerged he had quite liked enriching himself at football’s expense, after all. He gave himself a secret £7.7 million bonus after the 2010 World Cup and then, a year later, an £8.4 million top-up linked to the 2014 World Cup.

FIFA is now making pots of cash and last year was promised a share of up to £160 million in money seized from the dozens of crooked officials already dealt with by the US Department of Justice. Which brings us to the second and third defendants in Bellinzona: FIFA itself and Switzerland.

None of this would have happened without American criminal enforcement agencies realising just how corrupt football was on their side of the Atlantic, how Blatter’s FIFA appeared to condone rampant fraud, and how European police and politicians did not seem to care.

Sure, some politicians would bleat when they lost a World Cup bid but these protests would fade as football moved on. There are always other World Cups and nobody likes sour grapes.

But the bid Qatar beat in 2010 belonged to the US. Blatter, ironically, wanted America to win, as he thought appointing Russia and the US as hosts of the next two World Cups might cement that Nobel.


But it did not turn out that way, of course, and America’s sudden interest in FIFA-related decision-making ultimately led to Blatter’s downfall.

The FIFA that Infantino took over in early 2016 was still in legal limbo in the US, which was using laws created to tackle the mafia to arrest dozens of football chiefs from North, Central and South America, seize their assets and gain quick indictments.

The question then was whether FIFA was a mafia-like organisation or the victim of a mafia-like organisation? Infantino won that argument and, in terms of sports politics, he has never looked back.

Switzerland? Well, it took its own sweet time to make up its mind about Ambassador Blatter and the establishment he was running.

But it got there and that is why an 86-year-old man, who has already lost the job he loved, and a 67-year-old man who had that job in his grasp only to see it pass to his lieutenant, will be back in Bellinzona on July 8 to hear if they are real criminals or not.

Will it change anyone’s mind about them, FIFA or Switzerland’s reluctance to pry for so long?

Probably not. But it’s the principle of the matter, right?

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