Sepp Blatter, the former FIFA president, and his former ally Michel Platini were acquitted of fraud on Friday in the latest attempt by Swiss prosecutors to secure a conviction in a sprawling seven-year investigation into corruption at the highest level. of world football.
The trial, held in the southern Swiss city of Bellinzona, was linked to a $2million payout arranged in 2011 by Blatter, who led world football’s governing body for 17 years , to Platini, a former French player who was at the time president of European football’s governing body and a potential heir to Blatter as the sport’s most powerful ruler.
Prosecutors had called the payment a bribe, saying it was made around the time Blatter was running for re-election. Blatter and Platini have denied any wrongdoing; they long maintained that the money was owed to Platini for work carried out over several years.
In a statement after the verdict, the court said that while there were “numerous well-founded suspicions” before the case went to trial, the versions presented by Blatter and Platini of what happened created ” serious doubts” around the case made by prosecutors.
And in another embarrassing blow for Swiss authorities, the court ruled that Blatter and Platini were entitled to a payment of around $20,000 for what it described as moral damages. The court said Platini waived payment, but both men would also receive payments for their legal costs.
A smiling Blatter was engulfed in media as he left the courthouse. He raised both arms in the air, reminiscent of a gesture he used frequently during his days as FIFA president, to declare victory.
“i am a happy mansaid Blatter, before thanking the judges. “They analyzed the situation and they explained why we both didn’t do anything.”
The criminal charges of fraud, criminal mismanagement and forgery against Blatter and Platini came after a multi-year investigation into the $2 million payment, which came to light in 2015 after US Justice Department prosecutors revealed corrupt practices at FIFA dating back at least two decades. .
The US investigation has resulted in the arrest and conviction of dozens of powerful soccer executives and marketing executives on charges of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy. Blatter was not among those charged at the time, and although he had been the subject of various investigations for years, the allegations of fraud over the payment to Platini marked the first time he had actually been charged at the time. penal.
The failure to prove the charges against Blatter and Platini, however, has highlighted the failures of Swiss justice to secure convictions in cases related to the FIFA scandal. Swiss authorities raided the offices of FIFA with great fanfare in 2015, shortly after the Justice Ministry unveiled its sweeping indictment outlining decades of corruption at FIFA’s governing body. football, and Swiss prosecutors say they have opened dozens of separate investigations into the organization’s activities.
So far, however, they have only managed to prosecute one former FIFA official, a banker and a Greek TV executive. None of these defendants was sentenced to prison.
The $2 million payment to Platini came as Blatter faced a tough challenge for the FIFA presidency from a Qatari billionaire, Mohamed bin Hammam, who was the head of the FIFA at the time. soccer in Asia. Both Blatter and Platini said the money was a late payment for work Platini, the captain of France’s 1984 European Championship-winning team, did for Blatter after he was elected FIFA president for the first time, in 1998.
During the trial, Blatter told the court that the money was part of a “gentlemen’s agreement” he made with Platini, who agreed to advise him in exchange for about $1 million a year. Paying the money would come “later,” Blatter said of their deal.
“When Mr. Blatter asked me to be his adviser, he asked me what salary I wanted,” Platini later testified. “I was surprised that he asked me that question and I said to him, ‘I want a million’.”
Blatter, 86, and Platini, 67, faced up to five years in prison if convicted.
Both men were eventually banned from the match by FIFA’s disciplinary system, although their initial bans were later reduced on appeal. Those were due to expire in October, but a new suspension, imposed on Blatter for various reasons, took effect when it ended, meaning he will be out of the game until 2028, when he will be 92.
After the verdict, Platini said justice had been served “after seven years of lies and manipulation”.
He previously targeted the current FIFA leadership led by his former deputy, Gianni Infantino. Infantino went from incumbent FIFA president candidate to chief when Platini was first charged in 2015 and after Blatter resigned following the Justice Department investigation and arrests.
Platini suggested he would continue to fight to clear his name; he filed a criminal complaint against Infantino in April. “In this case, there are culprits who did not appear during this trial,” he said. “Let them count on me, we will see each other again. Because I will not give up and I will go all the way in my quest for truth.
Blatter could also return to court. He faces the possibility of another trial after Swiss authorities informed him in June 2020 that he had been branded a “defendant” in a case involving alleged embezzlement after he lent $1million. to a football official in the Caribbean.
That official, Jack Warner, fought against extradition to the United States after being named in the Justice Department’s indictment.