Platini for the People?
Claims that Michel Platini, new president of UEFA, is some kind of Robin Hood of footie are greatly exaggerated.
Sepp Blatter is generally regarded as a bit of a buffoon, and quite rightly so. So why have some hard-bitten football hacks welcomed the election of Blatter’s sidekick, Michel Platini, as president of UEFA?
Admittedly, Blatter is prone to the odd Prince Philip-style faux pas. He was widely lambasted in 2004 for suggesting that female footballers wear ‘tighter shorts’ to make the women’s game more appealing. Unlike the urbane and relatively youthful Platini, Blatter is regarded as a bit of an old perv. Blatter also irritates football fans by his constant rule changes. For example, there’s his persistent tampering with the offside rule, which has rendered football’s sacred law an incomprehensible mess. Then there’s his obsessive quest to find new methods of settling drawn games. First there was the golden goal, then the silver goal, and, most recently, he has suggested withdrawing players from each team in extra time. Blatter has even floated the idea of doing away with draws altogether. ‘Every game should have a winner’, he said in 2004.
Platini is just as culpable as Blatter for FIFA’s rule-tinkering, but somehow he has avoided being tainted by his association with the federation’s chief. Part of Platini’s appeal is he is not a career bureaucrat but an ex-player, one of the most elegant footballers of his generation. But the principle reason that Platini has seduced some commentators is his shamelessly populist election strategy.
Platini’s campaign slogan was ‘giving football back to the footballers’. He pledged to limit each European nation to a maximum of three Champions’ League places. This would mean the smaller nations would gain more places at the expense of England, Spain and Italy, who would each lose a place. Platini’s reforms would certainly ruffle the feathers of the G14 group of wealthy European clubs, but it’s not exactly Bolshevism is it? It’s more akin to the micro-radicalism of the old Lib Dem manifesto pledge to put an extra penny on income tax.
Nonetheless, some admirers are already unfurling the red flags. ‘Football across Europe is bracing itself for a revolution of sorts, one, suitably, inspired by a Frenchman’, gushed Kevin Mitchell in the Observer (1). The Guardian’s Paul Doyle predicted that ‘Platini’s win…could pave the way for radical changes in the game. It could even lead to a cataclysmic collision between the big clubs and the game’s governors.’ (2) Even the Guardian’s ultra-cynical Fiver teatime bulletin welcomed Platini’s pledge to reform the Champions’ League: ‘It’s a worthy ambition, which is supported by most European countries and right-thinking football supporters who haven’t been brainwashed by Sky’s coverage of the better-than-ever-yes-really Premiership.’ (3)
But anyone who thinks that Platini is some kind of soccer Robin Hood is kidding themselves. Like his mentor Sepp Blatter, he is nothing more than a seasoned political operator whose populist platitudes are football’s equivalent of politicians kissing babies. He has obviously taken his cue from Blatter, who tailors his comments to suit his audience and is frequently given to diatribes against the excesses of commercialisation. ‘What we are faced with today is a football society of haves and have-nots’, Blatter recently complained. ‘This cannot be the future of our game. FIFA cannot sit by and see greed rule the football world.’
However, at the same time as railing against the ‘Wild West-style of capitalism’ that is threatening football, Blatter is also milking the FIFA World Cup for all it’s worth through sale of broadcasting rights, corporate sponsorship deals and expensive hospitality packages. Blatter has adeptly played the ‘I’m on the side of the little man’ card in order to cement his power base in Africa, Central America, Oceania and Asia. Likewise, Platini’s radical posturing was clearly designed to garner electoral support among the East European nations, all of whom, with the exception of the Ukraine, voted for the Frenchman.
Platini talked a good game at the hustings but, like Blatter, you can bet he will be much more pragmatic when in office. The more worrying outcome, and one which most commentators have failed to spot, is that the main beneficiary of Platini’s election victory is actually…Blatter. Times football writer Gabriele Marcotti is one of the few journalists to have made this point. ‘The victor is the same man who is criticised by the media, club officials and FA honchos in Europe’, he wrote. ‘Step forward Sepp Blatter, the winner and heavyweight champion of the football world.’ (4) Unlike his predecessor, Lennart Johansson, Platini intends to play a hands-on role on UEFA’s executive committee. ‘Platini would like UEFA to be more like FIFA, where the president Sepp Blatter rules the roost’, explained the Guardian’s Kevin McCarra (5). Blatter has frequently been at loggerheads with UEFA but, as Gabriele Marcotti has warned, ‘The risk is that now it will become another part of Blatter’s fiefdom’.
Personally I’m not popping any champagne corks over Platini’s victory. Yes he was a fantastic footballer in his day, but that’s all in the past. Platini, let’s not forget, has been on FIFA’s executive committee for many years and, along with Blatter, is directly responsible for many of the batty law changes and refereeing diktats that have blighted the modern game. It was Platini who headed up the FIFA task force after the 1990 World Cup that dreamt up a raft of measures designed to shift the balance of power from defenders to attackers. As a direct result, FIFA outlawed the tackle from behind, but Platini actually wanted to go further and ban tackling altogether. As it is, thanks to Platini’s task force, football is well on its way to becoming a non-contact sport.
It’s tempting to see Platini as a radical who will champion football’s underdogs against the super-rich elite. Gabriele Marcotti, however, has a different take on Platini’s election win. ‘What this means is that Blatter is bound to run world football for the next decade or so’, he predicts. Not such a mouth-watering prospect when put like that, is it?
(1) The new king of European football, The Observer, 28 January 2007
(2) Will President Platini trigger a war, The Guardian, 26 January 2007
(3) The Fiver, Guardian Unlimited, 26 January 2007
(4) The How Uefa lost its own vote, The Times (London), 29 January 2007
(5) Platini plans to reduce England’s Champions League teams to three, Guardian Unlimited