“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”
– Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight (2008)
Michel Francois Platini was one of the greatest central midfielders to ever grace the football pitch and the undisputed leader of the French national football team in the 80s. He was also one of the most powerful administrators in football after hanging up his boots. He partnered with Sepp Blatter to establish a formidable duopoly in world football administration with the latter serving as the Federation Internationale de Football Association (“FIFA”) president for more than a decade and Platini as the chief of the European arm of FIFA, namely the Union of European Football Associations (“UEFA”) for the better part of a decade.
His rise to the top as a football administrator was unprecedented in that no footballer had wielded such power in an administrative capacity before. However, his fall from grace in 2015 was equally memorable amidst a storm of corruption, with several top FIFA officials rounded and sanctioned for accepting or facilitating bribes. After years of conjecture about financial misappropriation by senior FIFA officials, the FIFA Ethics Committee discovered a “disloyal payment” of Swiss Francs (“CHF”) 2,000,000 received by Platini as remuneration for his services as advisor to then FIFA president Sepp Blatter from 1998 – 2002. Thereafter, Platini was banned for 8 years from all football-related activity (and by extension, stripping him of the presidency of UEFA).
In December 2015, the FIFA Ethics Committee found Platini in violation of Articles 13, 15, 19, and 20 of the FIFA Code of Ethics (“CEF”). Platini appealed to the FIFA Appeals Committee, where his ban was reduced from 8 to 6 years. Later, Platini appealed against the ban to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (“CAS”), where his ban was reduced from 6 years to 4 years. He finally appealed to the Swiss Federal Tribunal (“SFT”) to overturn the CAS ruling. However, that appeal was rejected. During the course of these proceedings, several unique legal issues came to the fore. They are discussed below:
Validity of Oral Agreements
The FIFA Appeals Committee held that the CHF 2,000,000 payment sanctioned by Blatter in favour of Platini in 2011 was not based on a valid contract. The CAS panel, after investigating the source of the payment, discovered that the impugned payment was made on the basis of a “gentlemen’s agreement”, in that it was merely an oral agreement between Blatter and Platini and was not legally binding. CAS held that Platini was not authorized to sanction such payments on behalf of FIFA to “advisors” and furthermore, there was no sufficient proof to establish the existence of the oral agreement anyway, as it was recorded retrospectively. As a consequence, the impugned amount was paid pursuant to a non-existent legal obligation and therefore in violation of Article 20 of the CEF (Offering and Accepting Gifts and Other Benefits).
Conflict of Interest
Platini attended FIFA’s Finance Commission meeting in March 2011, wherein FIFA presents its annual financial report for approval by the members of the Finance Commission. Incidentally, one of the items on the agenda of the meeting was approval of the CHF 2,000,000 payment made in lieu of “Special Projects”. Platini did not notify the other members that this payment was received by him. This constituted a clear instance of conflict of interest, whereby Platini essentially participated in the approval of this payment in bad faith, without revealing the true recipient of the payment. In order to justify his participation at the meeting, Platini attended the meeting on behalf of the absentee UEFA representative Marios Lefkaritis (then UEFA Treasurer) as he was unwell. The CAS panel concluded that Platini did not act with integrity, independence and determination as a member of FIFA’s Finance Commission, because he had a personal interest in obfuscating the impugned payment and making sure that FIFA’s 2010 report was passed without objection. On these grounds, he was held in violation of Article 19 of the CEF (Conflict of Interest).
The CAS panel did not uphold FIFA Appeals Committee’s decision in its entirety. CAS observed that under the lex specialis derogat generali principle whereby if any behaviour falls under a general and a specific rule, only the latter rule (and the specific sanctions therein) shall apply. This is incidentally in line with the “double jeopardy” rule under common law. CAS reasoned in dissent of FIFA Appeals Committee’s sanction that Platini could not be held in violation of Article 13 (General Rule of Conduct) and Article 15 (Loyalty) of the CEF since the acts in breach of the aforementioned Articles 19 and 20 of CEF were not separate acts. As a consequence, the CAS panel concluded that Platini did not violate Articles 13 and 15 of CEF, although his actions were definitely not ethical or loyal.
Platini appealed against the CAS award to SFT invoking the arbitrariness of award, a ground for appeal provided for only in domestic arbitration procedures. In order to determine the arbitrariness of the award, SFT had to first determine whether the present matter constituted “domestic arbitration” or not. SFT held that although both FIFA and the CAS have their seat in Switzerland and Platini himself was also domiciled in Switzerland when the appeal was filed, the only decisive factor was his domicile at the time of the conclusion of the agreement between Platini and FIFA (with the arbitration clause). SFT observed that at the time of conclusion of the agreement, Platini was domiciled in France. Ordinarily, this would mean that it would fall under international arbitration and not domestic arbitration. However, since the CAS Panel proceeded to incorrectly deem the arbitration as domestic and FIFA did not object to it, such qualification had become binding upon the parties and FIFA could no longer raise any objections without violating the principles of good faith.
Following this rationale, the scope of review of arbitrariness of the CAS award was ostensibly extended. However, the burden of proof is also increased on the appellant. In order to prove arbitrariness of award, the appellant must prove that the award is either contrary to the law or based on incorrect factual evidence. Upon review, SFT concluded that the CAS award was not arbitrary.
Proportionality of sanction
Another interesting issue concerned the proportionality of the sanction. Platini argued that the sanction was vague (“any activity relating to football”) and hence, such decision could be annulled via appeal. SFT did not bite on this appeal and held that specificity of the sanction was not reason enough to annul the contested award.
Michel Platini exemplified the beautiful game when he wore the blue of France and led his team to European glory in 1984. After retirement, he helmed the role of chief architect of the 1998 FIFA World Cup hosted by France. He went on to climb the proverbial ladder and ascended to the top of football administration through his various roles in FIFA and UEFA, culminating in the presidency of UEFA – a post he held for close to a decade. He was acknowledged as the first prominent player who had reached the top echelons of FIFA and successfully opened the gates to a new generation of administrators. However, despite his high standing in the game, he was ultimately reduced to a venal figurehead who failed to uphold the values of integrity and transparency in his role as an administrator. Corruption and bribery have long been associated with international sporting federations and associations. However, the detrimental effect of such allegations being proven against a known and popular ex-footballer (a Ballon’D’Or winner, no less), is much more pronounced.
Since the turn of the decade, FIFA has come under the scanner for its illicit back-room dealings, specifically the awarding of the hosting duties for the 2018 and 2022 editions of the World Cup to Russia and Qatar respectively. It is public knowledge that Platini was instrumental in seeing the bids of Russia and Qatar to fruition. The conjecture surrounding the controversial awarding of these bids along with the conviction for accepting the aforementioned “disployal payment” shall forever tarnish the legacy of Platini, a generational talent in his playing days.
P.S. – In a recent development, Platini has been tentatively cleared of any charges of financial misappropriation by Swiss public prosecutors who are investigating Sepp Blatter and his financial dealings.