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Inside Qatargate, War Between Soccer's Top Two Suits

Michel Platini and Sepp Blatter during the 2010 World Cup
Michel Platini and Sepp Blatter during the 2010 World Cup
Stéphane Mandard

PARIS — There is no doubt among the people at the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), Europe's soccer governing body, that allegations of corruption against UEFA President Michel Platini is a case of paranoia gone wrong.

Some there believe that the controversy suggesting Platini was bribed to support Qatar's 2022 bid may be the doing of FIFA President Joseph "Sepp" Blatter, who they think is "afraid that Michel Platini will stand against him for the FIFA presidency." In 2010, the small emirate of Qatar was unexpectedly named host for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

On June 1, The Sunday Times published front-page allegations of a "plot to buy the World Cup." With supporting evidence, it accused Mohamed bin Hammam, former president of the Asian Football Confederation and former FIFA vice president, of having paid over $5 million in bribes to members of the world's soccer governing body in exchange for supporting the Qatar bid.

Two days later a Daily Telegraph headline read, "France embroiled in Qatar World Cup scandal." The story claimed that UEFA's Platini had "secretly" met with bin Hammam in November 2010, just a few days before the vote.

"I wish to reiterate that I am the only member of the FIFA executive committee who publicly stated for which bid I have voted — proof of my full transparency — and that no one ever dictates terms or conditions to me," the French Platini replied in a letter. "I am no longer surprised by the circulation of unfounded rumors, which aim at tarnishing my image, especially in such an important time for the future of football. Nothing surprizes my anymore!"

Payback maybe?

But there might be something else at play behind the scenes. The FIFA Congress will meet on June 10 in São Paulo, two days before this year's World Cup begins in Brazil. There, the 78-year-old Blatter, the body's current president, is expected to announce his candidacy for a fifth term in office. Platini, who recently suggested he was the "only one" who could beat Blatter, said he would make a decision about whether he will run in the May 2015 election after the World Cup. Four years ago, the French soccer legend decided not to run against his former "friend," though he expressed disappointment that Blatter didn't retire.

Since then, the war between the two highest football officials has been raging. And in that battle, Qatar has become Blatter's best weapon. The FIFA chief knows that the decision to award the 2022 World Cup to the rich emirate has become increasingly controversial. First, because of the extreme weather conditions that make it impossible to host the tournament in the summer, and most importantly, because of the no-less-extreme working conditions for the thousands of laborers on Doha's construction sites. The Swiss also knows that, unlike him, Platini voted for the Qatar bid.

So on May 16, Blatter launched his attack. In an interview with Swiss broadcaster RTS, he said that it had been a "mistake" to award Qatar the World Cup, blaming the FIFA executive committee for the decision. "I will never say that they bought it, because it was political pushing. Really, both in France and Germany," he said.

That was a veiled reference to a now-famous lunch at the presidential Élysée Palace, to which then-President Nicolas Sarkozy had invited Michel Platini. The other guests were Qatar's emir and prime minister as well as Sébastien Bazin, CEO of Colony Capital for Europe, an investment firm that was then the owner of the Paris Saint-Germain soccer team, which was looking for a buyer.

The Nov. 23, 2010, lunch was one week before the FIFA vote and six months before Paris Saint-Germain was sold to the Qatari's investment fund QSI, and it has been fueling suspicion ever since. There was also the fact that Platini's son Laurent joined QSI's legal department in January 2012.

Defending Platini

Platini has always claimed that Sarkozy did not ask him to back Qatar. "He never met with the heads of state of the government of the countries running in the vote," one of Platini's close relations says. Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country was awarded the 2018 World Cup at the same time, "had invited him, but he refused. The only exception was when Nicolas Sarkozy invited him at the Élysée Palace. And Michel was surprized by the emir's presence."

One of Platini's close advisers goes further and claims that his meeting with bin Hammam a few days earlier was "no secret at all" either and had nothing to do with Qatar's bid. "It was a simple breakfast in a Zurich hotel ahead of a reunion of the FIFA's executive committee," the adviser says. "Bin Hammam asked Michel to stand against Blatter for the FIFA presidency. He refused, and bin Hammam told him that he would do it himself. Blatter knows that."

A few weeks later, bin Hamman in fact announced he would run against Blatter. But just before the election, he was suspended for having offered $40,000 to Caribbean Football Union officials in exchange for their support. People at the UEFA believe that bin Hammam's bribes were not intended to "buy" the World Cup, as The Sunday Times claims, but instead to ensure votes for his presidencial bid. Besides, they point out that bin Hammam was out of favor with Qatar's royal family.

By an extraordinary coincidence, former U.S. prosecutor Michael J. Garcia, the man heading the investigation of alleged corruption surrounding the vote for Qatar, said Tuesday that though his investigation would be finished by June 9, his report would not be ready until six weeks later, after the World Cup in Brazil. Enough time for some to foresee a truce in the war between Blatter and Platini.

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