PARIS — Eternally nostalgic of its past grandeur, France is already dreaming about the prospect out loud: Platini!
As an attacking midfielder, he led France to the 1984 European Championship and Italian squad Juventus to club dominance, before turning manager and overseeing the 1998 World Cup organization in France and eventually taking over as head of European soccer body UEFA. But now Michel Platini could be standing before an even greater destiny: becoming king of the world (of soccer) and savior of a FIFA that has been hit by corruption scandals that threaten its very standing.
Since the surprise resignation of FIFA chief Sepp Blatter (who will remain in office until his successor is elected), Platini has so far said nothing about his intentions. He's "putting things into perspective" at his home in Nyon, by Lake Geneva, says one source close to the 59-year-old.
Platini's close friends, however, are not leaving it to anyone else to sing his praises. French Football Federation President Noël Le Graët repeated that "Michel" has always been the "best candidate." Férédric Thiriez, president of the Professional Football League, described him as the "ideal candidate." The Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports, Thierry Braillard, as an "outstanding leader who has all the qualities for the FIFA presidency." Even the British bookmakers, putting all their Francophobia aside, have joined the growing consensus, putting him at 6:5 odds to win the vote at FIFA's still-to-be-scheduled extraordinary congress to elect a new head.
So here we are: Platini has a wide-open goal in front of him. First, because he has double legitimacy — he's both a soccer legend and head of the world's most powerful regional confederation, the UEFA. The combination of these two qualities is quite rare. France's David Ginola, Portugal's Luis Figo or Brazil's Arthur Antunes "Zico" Coimbra, former or future candidates, all excelled on the field but have no top management experience.
Indian-American Sunil Gulati (head of the U.S. Soccer Federation, who is said to be interested in the position) and French Jérôme Champagne have the opposite problem: They are both highly trained as managers, but retired their athletic ambition around the fourth grade. As for Prince Ali, Sepp Blatter's one and only rival during the last election, he's considered not much more than just the half-brother of the King of Jordan.
Platini has another great quality for the position. Given the standards of global soccer, his image is almost immaculate. Sure, the English-speaking media (L'Obs too, let's face it) has dug up some unpleasant truths: that lunch with Emir Al Thani and then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy a few days before from the vote awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar; a rather unusual organization of the 2012 European Championship in Ukraine; and the recruitment of his son Laurent by a company under Qatari control. Still, it never went further than that. The commander's image has remained stainless, and no one, not even the FBI investigators, found any dirt on his doings as UEFA boss — and, in this capacity, vice president of FIFA's executive committee.
Curiously, Platini's friends more or less say the same as Sepp Blatter's close friends and family have said of the now outgoing FIFA boss: He's not a poet, granted, but not a money man either.
FIFA vs. UEFA
Thus the question now is not whether Platini is capable of taking over as head of global soccer — but whether he wants to. And whether the 209 federations that will vote for the future head of FIFA are ready to give him free rein.
About his motivation, it has often been written that his fear of losing against the "Machiavellian" Blatter was the only thing that made him renounce his candidacy during the last congress. The exchange of niceties between camp Blatter and camp Platini these past two years does indeed give the impression of an intense fight between the two men for supremacy over the sport.
But this small war of one-liners can also be interpreted as a conflict between two bodies with very different interests and agendas: on the one hand there's UEFA, the representative of European soccer — including major clubs — which has its main honey pot through the Champions' League; on the other hand there's FIFA, which must manage the influence of developing countries seen as producers of raw resources (the young talented players imported and whose value is increased in Europe) and business customers for television networks in the soccer economy.
As Loulou Nicollin, the head of the Montpellier soccer club, reminded us last year: "UEFA is thrilling — that's where the money, the power is; FIFA is more for retirement and reputation." Nicollin is both right and wrong. FIFA is indeed an odd assembly constructed on the old model of the League of Nations, where the president is far less the Master of the Universe than a Ban Ki-moon of soccer, who constantly has to reach compromises with the different confederations. And yet FIFA, provided that its president has his hands free, could become something completely different: a real organ of global soccer regulation and source of stability.
But does Michel Platini want to play this role? In UEFA, when it comes to fighting against inequalities, his results are mixed. Platini, who used to be Blatter's right-hand man, learned from the Swiss chief how important it is to guarantee the support of planet soccer's small countries. Platini is the man behind the development of aid programs for Eastern Europe, in Albania, Macedonia and Azerbaijan. He's also behind the famous "financial fair-play" (obliging clubs to balance their expenses and their revenues every year), which allowed for combined losses of these clubs to be cut from 1.7 billion to 800 million euros.
A different logic
But since his election in 2007, a revolution in the European soccer landscape is yet to be witnessed. The major clubs are still getting larger. The smaller clubs ever more pauperized. "The goal of financial fair-play isn't so much reducing sporting uncertainties than avoiding systematic bankruptcy risks," explains one of his close advisors. "Let's be realistic: European culture is made of small and big clubs, and that is not going to change."
Platini has learned to adapt to the requirements of professional European soccer. UEFA even led the battle against "unrealistic" regulations such as the 6+5, suggested by FIFA, which would have forced clubs like Chelsea, Real Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain, to play with a minimum of five national players in order to preserve the uncertainty of results and limit the drain of young African or Brazilian talents.
The problem with FIFA is that it follows a completely different logic than that of the European confederation. Clubs only have a small influence in FIFA, since 100% of the revenues are generated by the World Cups — meaning the national teams — and the "one country, one vote" rule means that small and soccer-weak nations have disproportionate power.
Earlier in his post-playing career, some considered Platini a "dangerous revolutionary" and a "social romantic." Right now, he is looking more and more like the establishment candidate, if it is the role he so desires. Perhaps there is just one person left who could derail such a destiny: Sepp Blatter.