Michel Platini is often seen as the ex-pro coming to save Fifa. But why did he vote for Qatar?
“Let me tell you a tale,” my friend said, “a tale in the Oriental style.”
This friend will remain anonymous, for two reasons: firstly, while he won’t mind my re-telling the tale in question he would probably prefer not to see his own name in print; secondly, his name wouldn’t mean much to most readers anyway. This friend could adopt Descartes’s larvatus prodeo [masked, I proceed] as his motto, as the path he’s followed in football, which took him to very high places indeed, remains largely uncharted. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
This conversation took place at his (unmarked, unlisted) London office, six weeks before Fifa chose Russia and Qatar to be the respective hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. To say that these decisions came as a surprise to my interlocutor would be a wild exaggeration, as, that afternoon, after fielding calls from Sepp Blatter and Mohammed Bin Hammam, he assured me that the Russians would walk it, that England would be lucky to get more than a solitary vote and that it was touch and go for the Qataris to bag the prize in the first round. I passed on the information to my contacts at England 2018, who clearly thought that my source had offered me something stronger than espresso at our meeting. We all know what happened in the end. But let’s go back to the tale itself.
“Once, there was a French president whom we shall call Nicolas. He didn’t have much money. In fact, he was desperate for some but, thankfully, his good friend the emir had plenty of it. The emir told him that he’d buy all sorts of things from France, expensive things like planes and nuclear power stations and Nicolas was very happy. But then the emir said, ‘There’s one condition, though, just a little thing.’
“‘What could it be?’ Nicolas asked.
“‘Just tell Michel to give us the World Cup,’ the emir replied.
“Nicolas didn’t have much of a choice. He needed the money. So he asked Michel to do what he was told, and Michel said he’d do it.”
This is only a tale, of course. Maybe it’s true and maybe it’s not. I pass it on it as it was given to me, minus some details related to the way the Qataris used their huge campaign budget to promote their bid. I was troubled, though. It was true that Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, ruler of Qatar, had travelled incognito to Paris a few days before this conversation took place — ‘incognito’, in this case, meant not staying at the Hôtel Lambert, his palatial residence on the Île Saint-Louis, but instead taking over a whole floor at the Royal-Monceau hotel, which he, or his country, or his country’s sovereign fund, which is pretty much the same thing, happened to own as well.
The aim of that visit was not to secure a vote at the forthcoming Fifa Congress, not primarily anyway. The French government was thinking of selling a significant stake of Areva, a state-owned body which controls the country’s nuclear industry from uranium mines to power stations, to the gas-rich emirate. The transaction didn’t take place in the end, partly because of an almighty uproar in the French media. But it demonstrated the strength of the links between France and the minuscule Gulf state, three-quarters of whose 1.7m residents are ‘guest workers’, mostly shipped in from the Indian sub-continent, who enjoy no civic rights and are treated in such a shocking way by their employers that, in November 2011, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) asked Fifa to re-consider their choice of Qatar as World Cup-hosting country. Good luck to them.
Who was the first head of state to make an official visit to the Élysée palace after Nicolas Sarkozy’s election to the presidency in 2007? Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. That was good business for la République. France sold Qatar £208m worth of defence equipment on that occasion, as well as a fleet of sixty Airbus 350s. And if Nicolas and Hamad like each other, the same can be said of Carla and Moza, that is Carla Bruni, the pop-singing wife of Nicolas, a regular guest in Doha, and Sheikha Moza al-Misned, the wife of Sheikh Hamad, the figurehead of the Qatar 2022 bid and president of the Qatar Foundation, the ‘charity’ which disburses £25m each year to make sure Barcelona don’t have to lower themselves to endorsing a commercial shirt sponsor1.
In the context of geopolitics, the Uefa president and Fifa vice-president Michel Platini, whether he saystu to Nicolas Sarkozy or not (he does — they go back a long way), is a prestigious but not overly significant cog in the wheel of the Franco-Qatari ‘special relationship’, which is not to say he is without consequence from a football perspective. One of his greatest assets must be that, as a recognised great of the game, his views carry far more weight than those of the Swiss former amateur goalkeeper Sepp Blatter. To question him is, somehow, to question the near-genius of Juventus andLes Bleus— something like walking into a Greenpeace convention wearing a ‘DOLPHINS ARE BASTARDS’ T-shirt or finding out that the ethereal Isolde you were in love with had an inch-thick dossier at the local VD clinic.
This might explain why I was met with a rather cool reaction when I suggested to a few people back in France that my tale at least provided us with a lead worth following. We French tend to be very protective of the powerful, especially when they hold a prestigious position in an international organisation and contribute to the grandeur of our nation. Even Dominique Strauss-Kahn. A pity, in that case, as Michel Platini himself confirmed in March 2012 that Sarkozy had told him over lunch that “it would be a good thing if I did it” — that is, vote for Qatar. But, of course, this didn’t mean the president had specifically asked him to do so, as he knew “that I am free and independent.” Honesty or impudence? Or both? The man who can keep a straight face when describing himself as “a player at heart, not a politician” has developed a remarkable gift for presenting the indefensible as if it were dictated by self-evident common sense.
How on earth does he get away with it? Take his proposal to hold the 2022 World Cup in winter, an option that neither Fifa nor the Qatari organisers themselves had studied or were in favour of, and which he made without having consulted any of his experts about the impact this might have on club football. “I thought, after South Africa 2010”, he said, “where it was 0° at 5pm and there was no life [sic] for the fans, how can we ask the fans and players to go to this country when it is 50 or 60° in July? [...] The best time to play is winter. [...] What is the problem for the Premier League to finish at the end of May instead of the beginning, and recuperate this time in December? We have to put the World Cup and the fans first.”
Breathtaking stuff, all the more so since Platini had sung a rather different tune immediately after Qatar had been chosen to host the 2022 tournament, suggesting a switch to a cooler time of the year in the Middle-East, that’s true, but also reminding us that, “the temperature in Dallas [at the 1994 World Cup] was over 40° in 1994, if I’m not mistaken, and nobody criticised the US at the time.” He didn’t mind the idea of air-conditioned stadiums and fan-zones then, it seems. He also thought it might be a good idea to have the 2022 World Cup games played outside as well as in Qatar, so that it became a Gulf-wide competition — not such a stupid notion, come to think of it, but one it might have been more suitable to put forward before the vote had taken place and after having informed the Qataris themselves. That other bidding countries — Australia, the USA, South Korea and Japan — might be aggrieved didn’t seem to have crossed Platini’s mind. The provisos and specifications around which they’d built their dossiers, spending fortunes in the process, could apparently be jettisoned on a whim of the Fifa vice-president, but the apostle of fair-play wasn’t perturbed in the least. The fact is that only one of the twenty-two members left in the Fifa executive committee after the ban imposed on Amos Adamu and Reynald Temarii had requested a copy of the technical report compiled by the organisation’s own inspectors, a report in which Qatar 2022 was the only bid given a ‘high risk’ rating. It’s true that these gentlemen are known for their very relaxed attitude to ‘detail’ and that, in that respect if not all others, Michel Platini is no different from his fellow Exco members. After all, this is the man who said that, “in Spain, the owners are the fans, the socios,” when only four of La Liga clubs are run on these lines, and who had to be reminded that Uefa’s Financial Fair-Play (FFP) regulations would have to be approved by the European Commission before they could be implemented. A micro-manager Platini is not.
Still, tearing up the rule-book which had guided everyone — Qatar included — during the bidding process was surely unthinkable. Wouldn’t the losers have every right to pursue the matter in the courts? When asked these questions, Platini responded with the insouciance of an 18th centuryroué. “Who will remember the words in 12 years?” he shrugged. “In 12 years, everybody will be happy to have a very well-organised World Cup and not remember what’s happened before. When I organised the World Cup in France, we did [things] differently from what we proposed in the bid.” That’s what Platini is so good at: to proffer enormities which are so, well, enormous, that whoever hears them is momentarily lost for words, by which time he’s trampling daisies in another field, singing a little air of his confection.
“When I organised the World Cup...” True, Platini was one of the chief coordinators of France’s World Cup Committee. But poor Fernand Sastre, the French Football Federation administrator for whom bringing the tournament to France had been the ambition of a lifetime and who died on 13 June 1998, three days after its opening ceremony. This is Platini’s way.
Platini’s glowing endorsement of the “magnificent” Qatari bid has landed him in some awkward spots since the December 2010 vote, however. When the emirate’s ruling family bought Paris St-Germain FC in June 2011 through Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) and immediately started pumping millions into the ailing club (€42m on purchasing Javier Pastore from Palermo alone), it could have been expected that the crusader for FFP would step forward and issue a stern warning to the new owners. And he did — after a fashion. “We don’t know their budget yet,” he said in March of this year. “They’ll come to present it [to Uefa]. We have to observe, adapt, that’s not easy. We must stay true to a philosophy which has been endorsed by Uefa — and we will and the PSG owners will as well, otherwise they won’t play in our competitions, or they’ll have other problems, but I don’t know anything at all [about that].” The Al Thani family must have been trembling when they heard that. Speaking to one of Platini’s closest aides, the Uefa general secretary Gianni Infantino, at a recent football forum, it became clear to me that “I don’t know anything at all” would be the default response to most if not all questions about the actual implementation of the rules which are supposed to represent Platini’s legacy to the football world. Real Madrid’s project of building a fantasy island in the Gulf to raise gazillions of dollars: fair or unfair? “We’ll see.” Manchester City’s sale of naming rights to Etihad: fair or unfair? “We’ll see.” The decision by Uefa to centralise the negotiation of TV rights on behalf of everyone else, anything to do with (Qatar-based, and Qatari-owned) Al Jazeera’s transparent plans to become the exclusive broadcaster of football’s major events? “...”
Vagueness, of course, makes it easier to disguise (and live with) contradictions, with which Platini’s speech and “philosophy”, the word he uses himself, are replete. “I know I’m defending something which is not defensible anymore,” he sighs, portraying himself for a second as the slightly old-fashioned but engaging uncle whose views are tolerated by the family because of his advancing years. “I’m not a great fan of foreign owners, but the laws are the laws, and I can’t do anything about it.” Sulejman Karimov’s spending at Anzhi Makhachkala? “At least the man who is putting all this money into Anzhi comes from there, so he has a local connection, and that’s fine. It’s a new world.” Eh? What about the Glazers at Manchester United then? You’d expect him to tear into the Yanks, but no, not really. “I’m not bothered by their debt, since they’re able to pay it back.” You must have heard how Uefa and the European Clubs Association (ECA) have agreed to tick off one friendly from the international calendar; it was less widely reported that ECA, which had made veiled threats of going it alone and creating their own European tournament, got something more from Platini’s organisation: clubs will share €100m from profits generated during Euro 2012 and “an estimated €150m from the 2016 edition”. ECA’s been very quiet since then. Where does bribery start? And corruption?
It becomes maddening, after a while. Another example: what constitutes the ‘identity’ of a club for Platini would baffle anyone steeped in a British football culture and, dare I say, quite a few of thejuventini who adopted him as one of their own when, having run down his contract at Saint-Étienne, he joined the Old Lady in 1982, the French club receiving only a nominal fee. For him, identity has to do with the owners, the players, the coaches, who now “come and go” and, down the list, the fans. His opinion became clear in his address to a group of supporters’ organisations in April 2012 when he admitted fans were the “only identity” left, but then let slip that these fans to whom “football belongsas well” [my italics], would have their views taken into consideration “when we would be able to do so.” Why, thanks a lot! His weird obsession with the faults of English football, which he jokingly puts down to “the legendary rivalry between England and France, that’s all” leads him to statements which, were they directed at a different target, would not go down at all well, coming as they do from the head of a pan-European organisation. “When you have some English players on the field, they are playing not so bad,” he quipped in January of this year. We’re still waiting for observations of that kind about Serie A, which provides three of the top five “clubs that fielded the fewest association-trained players” in the 2010-11 season, according to a recent International Centre for Sports Studies (CIES) study2.
But I realise that I’m falling in the trap that Platini sets for whoever follows his meandering track with a critical eye: it is I who get lost. His own progress has been mapped ever since he retired as a player, 25 years ago, and probably before that. In 2015, regardless of his denials, he will be anointed Sepp Blatter’s successor by Fifa. Blatter, whom he says “is no angel... a typical politician” but “not corrupt, honest, 200%”; Blatter whom he’ll try “to help finish his mandate well, because it is for the good of the game.” He says, he doesn’t know “what I will do in four years.” Can we have a guess, Michel?
One thing he will not be too concerned about until then is the well-being of his 33-year-old son Laurent who, in January of this year, became legal advisor for the European operations department of a rather large and wealthy corporation: Qatar Sports Investments.