Bellinzona (Switzerland) (AFP) – Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini, once the chiefs of world and European football, were cleared Friday over a suspected fraudulent payment that shook the sport and torpedoed their time at the top.
Switzerland’s Federal Criminal Court in the southern city of Bellinzona acquitted the pair in a trial following a mammoth investigation that began in 2015 and lasted six years.
Former FIFA president Blatter, 86, and Platini, 67, listened in silence as the clerk read out the judgement which rejected the prosecution’s request for a suspended prison sentence of a year and eight months.
“A neutral court has finally found that no offence has been committed in this case. My client is completely cleared and relieved as a result,” said Platini’s lawer Dominic Nellen.
Former French football great Platini released a short statement claiming to have “won the first round”, while alluding to alleged political and judicial manipulation intended to remove him from power.
“In this case, there are culprits who did not appear during this trial. Let them count on me: we will find one other,” he said.
Platini was employed as an adviser to Blatter between 1998 and 2002.
Blatter told the court that when he took over as FIFA president in 1998, world football’s governing body had a bad record and he thought someone who had been a top figure in playing the game could help.
He turned to Platini for advice, which involved political trips, reforming the international calendar and helping the national federations financially.
They signed a contract in 1999 for an annual remuneration of 300,000 Swiss francs, which was paid in full by FIFA.
But the pair were tried over a two million Swiss franc ($2.05 million) payment in 2011 to Platini, who was then in charge of European football’s governing body UEFA.
– ‘Gentleman’s agreement’ –
Former world football chief Blatter told the court that the pair had struck a “gentleman’s agreement” for Platini to be paid a million Swiss francs a year.
Platini had jokingly asked Blatter for a million, without specifying the currency, and the then-FIFA president agreed, with part of the money — outside of the contract they signed — to be paid “later”, the court heard.
The remainder would be settled when FIFA’s fragile finances allowed it, Blatter said, in a deal concluded orally and without witnesses.
Platini was accused of having submitted to FIFA in 2011 an allegedly fictitious invoice for a claimed debt still outstanding for his advisory work.
Both were accused of fraud and forgery of a document. Blatter was accused of misappropriation and criminal mismanagement, while Platini was accused of participating in those offences.
Blatter and Platini maintained their innocence throughout their trial, which ran from June 8 to 22.
But the court considered that the fraud was “not established with a likelihood bordering on certainty”, and therefore applied the general principle of criminal law according to which “the doubt must benefit the accused”.
The indictment was filed by the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland.
Both FIFA and UEFA are headquartered in Switzerland, in Zurich and Nyon respectively.
– Power drama –
Platini and Blatter were banned from the sport at the very moment when the former seemed ideally-placed to succeed Blatter at the helm of world football’s governing body.
The two allies became rivals as Platini grew impatient to take over, while Blatter’s tenure was brought to a swift end by a separate 2015 FIFA corruption scandal investigated by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Joseph “Sepp” Blatter joined FIFA in 1975, became its general secretary in 1981 and the president of world football’s governing body in 1998.
He was forced to stand down in 2015 and was banned by FIFA for eight years, later reduced to six, over ethics breaches for authorising the payment to Platini, allegedly made in his own interests rather than FIFA’s.
Platini is regarded among world football’s greatest-ever players. He won the Ballon d’Or, considered the most prestigious individual award, three times — in 1983, 1984 and 1985.
Platini was UEFA’s president from January 2007 to December 2015.
He appealed against his initial eight-year suspension at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which reduced it to four years.
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