FIFA continues to unravel after Blatter, Platini provisionally banned
We're in uncharted waters. It's something I've written before -- way too many times -- when it comes to FIFA, but the fact is this ship is sailing further and further toward the edge of the map.
FIFA's statement Thursday brought news of a raft of provisional suspensions at the summit of world football from the body's Independent ethics committee. FIFA president Sepp Blatter and the man hoping to replace him next February, UEFA president Michel Platini, have been "banned from all football activities on a national and international level" for 90 days. (So too has FIFA's general secretary, Jerome Valcke, though he was already suspended by FIFA.) Chung Mong-joon, a former FIFA vice president and another candidate to replace Blatter in February's FIFA presidential election, has been banned for six years and fined $103,000.
What does this mean?
Well, first off, it means that we have new presidents at FIFA and UEFA. In situations such as these, the presidency passes to the longest-serving member of the executive committee. That would be Cameroon's Issa Hayatou for FIFA and Spain's Angel Maria Villar for UEFA. (Hayatou was reprimanded by the International Olympic Committee -- yes, he's a member of that too -- in 2011 for a payment he received in the ISL scandal and Villar, the head of the Spanish FA, was deemed "particularly unhelpful" when Spain's bid for the 2018 World Cup was investigated by Michael Garcia and could face sanction from the ethics committee himself. That's a subject for another day, but it also suggests it's hard to combine longevity with being allegation-free at the top of the world game.)
The key date is Jan. 6. That's when the 90 days expire. It means that both Blatter and Platini would miss the executive committee meeting in December. That's rather important, because this is where the agenda for the FIFA congress in February is put together, which is when FIFA members will vote on the next president. It will be a crucial ExCo meeting because it's where they could decide to postpone the election. Platini has enough support within the ExCo, and certainly more than Blatter, to make sure his priorities are addressed.
All of those who have been suspended have 48 hours to appeal. But under current guidelines they'll remain suspended regardless during the appeal.
The ethics committee can extend the suspension for another 45 days, which would bring it up to Feb. 20. The election is six days later. Unless the ethics committee finds reason to ban them permanently, Blatter could still show up as FIFA president and Platini could still run.
The other elephant in the room is the Swiss attorney general's investigation. That's what got them investigated by the ethics committee in the first place. Blatter has been named as a suspect though he has yet to be formally charged. He is accused of selling the 2010 and 2014 World Cup broadcasting rights for the Caribbean to Jack Warner for substantially less than their true value and of making a $2.1 million "disloyal payment" (Swiss legalese for "payment that is not immediately justifiable") out of FIFA accounts to Michel Platini in 2011. Platini's status has been described by a Swiss investigator as "somewhere between a suspect and a witness."
Both men maintain their innocence. Blatter's lawyers point out that the ethics committee failed to follow procedure in banning their client and based their decision on a "misunderstanding". They note that, by law, they'll need to dismiss his case if their investigation does not yield sufficient evidence.
Platini says the payment was for work carried out on behalf of FIFA between 1999 and 2001 and that it was invoiced and declared to the tax authorities. He has also said that he welcomes the opportunity to clear his name.
What makes the whole thing messy is that there are so many competing camps and interests here. Most of the players have either hired PR consultants or spin doctors and are carefully managing the flow of information. The fact that Platini and Blatter would be charged today was leaked from within the ethics committee on Wednesday. A man named Klaus Stoehlker, an occasional adviser to Sepp Blatter, was widely quoted in some media saying he was told Blatter would be charged, only for Blatter's right-hand man, Walter Gagg, to deny it hours later. As for Platini, he was notified of the suspension when FIFA issued a statement, and as of Thursday lunchtime was still in the dark over the reasons he was being suspended.
Listen closely and you can just about hear the "Game of Thrones" theme playing in the background. The underbrush of advisers, consultants and insiders which populates the world of football is in a frenzy, spreading theories, rumors and leaks. You wonder about the timing of certain matters.
You want examples?
How about Chung Mong-joon's six-year ban? Would it have happened now if he had not announced that he was running for the FIFA presidency?
What of Sheikh Ahmad? He's the hugely influential Kuwaiti power broker who is generally thought to control a huge chunk of the Asian vote. Most believed he would back Platini. Yet at the last executive committee, FIFA threatened the Kuwait FA with suspension after its government passed a law which they say amounts to political interference in sporting matters, a big no-no at FIFA.
Or how about the statements from Franco Carraro? He's the former head of the Italian FA who chaired FIFA's audit committee from 2002 to 2013, which meant he would have rubber-stamped all of FIFA's payments in that time, including the $2.1 million payment to Platini. On Tuesday he spoke to the Italian newspaper Repubblica saying that it was "anomalous" that Platini would be paid nine years after the fact. He added that he "did not remember seeing an invoice for that payment" even though he "could be mistaken."
Among so much uncertainty, there's very little we know for certain.
Here's a recap. Prince Ali is running for the FIFA presidency, he has been untouched by charges and he has the five nominations he needs to run.
The Swiss attorney general's inquiry continues. At some point, they'll have to decide whether there are grounds to make Platini a suspect and whether to take him (and Blatter) to court. If that happens, given the timing of the matter, it's highly unlikely that we'll see them in world football until the matter is settled.
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Assuming FIFA doesn't try to move the election in December, the powerful UEFA nations that have thus far backed Platini will need to decide in double-quick time whether to continue to steadfastly support him or field another candidate. If they want to present someone else, they'll need to decide by Oct. 26, the deadline for filing as a candidate. Otherwise they're stuck with Platini. Which is fine if the Swiss attorney general and the ethics committee clear him, less so if he's not and barred from running. (And bear in mind, he'll also have to pass the separate "integrity test," laid out by FIFA's audit and compliance committee, which has now become mandatory for presidential candidates.)
You can imagine the Asian power brokers Sheikh Salman and Sheikh Ahmed are thinking the same thing right now, as are Platini backers in CONCACAF. Until recently, the Confederation of African Football, the biggest confederation, appeared content to make a call on who to support closer to the election. Recent events will likely spur them into action too.
In technical terms, it's what's known as a "clustermess." And increasingly it appears that the fate of the organization will be decided by the Swiss attorney general and the lawyers, including the U.S. firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, who have been brought in to advise FIFA.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.