Football: Platini still playing by his own rules

An icon of French football is not just a figurehead at the World Cup. He is aiming for one of the game's top jobs. John Lichfield in Paris reports

Michel Platini was once declared too feeble to play professional football. He was asked to test his stamina by blowing as hard as he could into a machine operated by a consultant doctor engaged by FC Metz. After a couple of minutes, the young Platini fainted.

The 17-year-old reject went on to become, in succession: captain of the French team which won the European Nations' Cup in 1984; a European Cup winner with Juventus; the most elegant and exciting footballer of his generation; trainer of the French national team (his only failure to date) and, since 1992, co-president of the French World Cup Organising Committee. Not a figurehead co-president either.

Michel Platini - he of the suspect stamina - has already gone further in the game than any leading, professional player has ever gone. Like Pele and Bobby Charlton and Franz Beckenbauer, Platini has made the rare leap from the non-commissioned ranks of players and managers into football's Officer Class. Unlike Pele, Charlton and Beckenbauer, he has become, not just an ambassador for the game, but a genuinely powerful, and effective, football administrator.

At the age of 42, the boy with weak lungs is still running. On Monday, two days before the opening game of "his" World Cup, Michel Platini may rise to the rarefied and poisonous summit of the world's most popular sport. He is the de facto "running mate" of the Fifa secretary general, Sepp Blatter, in the race to succeed Joao Havelange as president of football's ruling body. (Blatter was also a professional player but hardly a well- known one.)

If the Blatter-Platini ticket succeeds when the 198 Fifa members vote in Paris on Monday, the Frenchman will take up a post created for him as Fifa's sports director. In such a post, Platini promises to return "football to the footballers''; to halt the drift of the game into show- business and high-finance; to break the stranglehold of the "big clubs''; and make football more "democratic". But what does all that mean?

Why have he and the French federation broken ranks with most other European federations in backing Blatter, against the Swedish head of the European football union (Uefa), Lennart Johannson?

If he wants to change things, why is Platini teaming up with the candidate of the Fifa old guard? Platini is, or was, a universally popular figure. Why are nasty words - like "betrayal" being used behind his back; and not just behind his back?

Platini, the international celebrity, elegant footballer and easy-going personality, has always had a brooding and unknowable side to his character. It is said in the French game that he has dozens of "copains" (pals) - largely from the glittering 1982-6 generation of players - but no friends. Beneath the cheery, debonair, occasionally moody, public face, there is still a passion to succeed against all the odds, to prove people wrong, to triumph among the bigger boys.

Visitors to his office at the headquarters of the French World Cup organising committee in the tres chic 16th arrondissement are invariably given a little lecture on how, he, Michel Platini, grandson of Italian immigrants, who left school with only his "Brevet d'Etude du Premier Cycle" (broadly the same as GCSE) has become the "patron" of people who have attended the most elite French educational establishments.

"All I have learned, I have learned from people, not books," he tells visitors. But he also admits that the transition from brain-and-foot work to brain-and-mouth work has not come easily.

"Here I have to weigh the slightest word for the impact that it might have. On the field, I just had to say: 'Espece de connard, tu me fais chier, donne-moi le ballon." (Which can be roughly translated into English soccer idiom as "You little wanker. You make me want to shit. Give me the ball.'')

Platini was born in Jouef, a small town near Metz in Lorraine. His father, Aldo, was a teacher and amateur soccer coach; his mother, Anna, kept a bar - the Bar des Sportifs. He learned to play football on the street, where he called himself "Peleatini. At the age of seven, his thunderous free-kicks, later to grace the word's finest stadia, were already threatening the life and property of the neighbours.

The pulmonary miscalculations of the Metz club doctor - he still works for the club - proved the good fortune of neighbours and rivals AS Nancy- Lorraine. Within four years, at the age of 21, Platini was in the midfield of the French national team, scoring with a bullet free-kick against the Czechs. He moved on to Saint Etienne and then Juventus, scoring the winner with a penalty in a European Cup final; one which he, and the world, would prefer to forget, against Liverpool at the Heysel Stadium, Brussels in May 1985.

After retiring as a player in 1987, and after a failed business venture, Platini became the manager of an under-achieving French squad from 1988- 92. Soon after resigning as French coach - because the French league rebuffed his demands for an 18-club first division - Platini was approached to join the organising team for the 1998 World Cup. He made it clear in an outspoken interview in the magazine Sport Plus that he was interested, but only if he was the boss. He did not want to be an "ambassador", treated as an errand boy with a big name.

It was decided, partly through typically Florentine machinations by the then French President Francois Mitterrand, that Platini would be one of two bosses, paired as co-president with a veteran soccer administrator, Fernand Sastre, 74, the man who had brought the World Cup to France.

As co-president, Platini was unpaid but has worked astonishingly hard. "I came to the office every morning," he says. "No one expected that." It was Platini who pushed through a couple of the decisions which will shape this World Cup. It was his idea to have all the teams move all around the country in the first stage, rather than have a regional base for each group, as in previous contests. The idea was to give the whole of France a chance to see the better teams (and, perhaps, to increase the take from travel and hotels).

Secondly, it was Platini who suggested that the organising committee should recruit its own sponsors, on top of the Fifa sponsors, and without going through a recruiting agency. The financial results have been spectacularly good but the sponsorship deals have creamed off a large proportion of the best seats, for the best games. (Otherwise, it is difficult to blame Platini and the other French organisers for the great France 98 ticket row: The rules and the allocation of tickets were laid down by Fifa.)

The boy from Jouef likes to present himself as a plain-dealer; "a man of convictions, not a man of compromise." But his new alliance with Sepp Blatter is shot through with, if not compromise, then contradictions.

Here is Platini, a football millionaire, who helped line up the big sponsorships for France 98, talking of curbing the power of money in football; and talking of shifting the balance of power away from the "big clubs", back to the "300 million registered players in the world". Here is Platini, who talks of the need for more democracy in football, teaming up with the favoured candidate of the autocratic, outgoing Brazilian president, Mr Havelange.

Platini is still an immensely likeable man. He may have the combination of talent and international respect to do great good for the game. It seems to many in Europe, however, that he has been seduced by the power at the apex of a sport which has more member countries than the United Nations. To hear him fluently berating the French pilots' strike on radio this week - "the world will take us for a bunch of cretins" - was to know that Platini has made the transition from tracksuit to suit: He has become a football politician.

Asked by France Football this week if he wanted to be Fifa president one day, he replied: "You should never say never. In 15 years, who knows?''

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