Michel Platini: A great attacker forced on to the defensive

Few footballers of his stature rise to comparable heights as an administrator. But with controversy swirling around Euro 2012, the Uefa president faces one of his biggest tests

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The Independent Online

Not many players have made a greater impact on an international football tournament than Michel Platini did in 1984. When he hoisted the European Championship trophy as captain of the winning team, France – and in Paris, to boot – he did so knowing that without him, Les Bleus would almost certainly not have triumphed.

Of the team's 14 goals, he had scored nine. He wasn't even a striker either, but a midfield player, albeit one blessed with majestic natural talent and abundant attacking guile. Moreover, in football they talk of such a thing as a "perfect" hat-trick – one goal scored with the right foot, one with the left and one with the head. At those 1984 championships, Platini bagged not just one of them, but two. His enduring place in the competition's annals was secure.

Let us wind the clock forward 28 years. Platini has lost some hair and acquired some weight since those halcyon days, yet as president of European football's governing body, Uefa, he bestrides the stage of the European Championships with even more swaggering authority than he did almost three decades ago as one of the world's finest players.

It is rare in football that a top player makes the transition into a top administrator. The old cliché about footballers, that their brains are in their feet, is not without foundation. Platini, however, the grandson of Italian immigrants to northern France, is bright, articulate and charming. Yet with Euro 2012 now under way in Poland and Ukraine, the adjectives tossed in his direction are not the same as those directed at him in his annus mirabilis of 1984. He has already been called stubborn, naive and petulant, and it could get worse.

Of all the issues facing these championships, racism is by far the most sulphurous. A reflective visit to Auschwitz in southern Poland is on the agenda for several teams, including England, which makes it even more grotesque that in neighbouring Ukraine, as the BBC's recent Panorama documentary showed, race hatred is endemic. And already in Poland some Dutch players have been the subject of racist taunting. Two of England's black players, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, have taken the precaution of asking their families not to go to support them. A number of black players from other countries have declared that they will walk off the pitch rather than suffer racist taunts.

Platini's response to this threat, issued most loudly by Manchester City's forthright Italian striker Mario Balotelli, was unequivocal. Any player taking matters into his own hands by walking off, said the Uefa president in his pre-tournament press conference this week, would be penalised with a yellow card.

He was not, in fairness, condoning likely outbreaks of racist chanting. On the contrary, he has instructed referees that they should stop matches if it gets too nasty. But he has a standard glib response for those who implore him to lead football's campaign against the thugs who sully the sport still described, if with dwindling conviction even by its greatest enthusiasts, as the Beautiful Game.

"This is a problem for society, not just for football, and I am not the president of society," he likes to say, in several languages. He confessed at his press conference to not having seen the alarming – but not, it seems, alarmist – Panorama programme. He clearly wanted the journalists questioning him to settle on another topic. But they would not, and when he was told about the former England player Sol Campbell's assertion that black fans who go to Ukraine could come back in coffins, his sang froid finally gave way. "What do you want me to say?" he snapped. "How do you want me to answer that? I've nothing to say. Everyone can do what they like." More calmly, he added that in domestic football, he did not think that clubs should be held responsible for their fans. "I don't see why a club should be deducted three points and maybe get relegated because their fans are racist."

Well, he should. The 56-year-old Platini is not yet the most powerful man in his sport, a distinction that belongs to a pompous and often buffoonish Swiss septuagenarian named Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa. But he has long seen Blatter's job as the culmination of his ambitions, and would surely be a better bet. We've known for years that he is captaincy material. However, as an administrator he could do with more of the thunderous attacking prowess he demonstrated as a player.

It is not that he shirks problems, although he does like to swerve responsibility. It was plainly a mistake to allow Ukraine to co-host Euro 2012 – and not only because of the racism. The country's corruption-ridden infrastructure is really not up to it. But Platini refuses to concede it as his mistake. It was Uefa's executive committee that made the decision, he says over and over, though we can be sure who will take the credit if the organisation's impending financial fair play regulations restore some sense to the crazy surrealism masquerading as football's economy.

Regrettably, they probably won't. Platini is proud of the financial fair play rules, which will be introduced in time for the 2014-15 season and deem that football clubs must spend within their means, but the outrageous means already established by billionaire sheikhs and oligarchs will continue to make a mockery of the game's traditional values. So, Platini has gone some way towards dealing with the situation, but not far enough. It is as if the former midfielder has cleverly woven a path into the penalty area but then miskicked the ball.

The ball, of course, is still, despite all the distractions, what the game is essentially about. And all the rules boil down to one fundamental truth: if the ball crosses the goal line, a goal has been scored. But increasingly, it seems, goals are given when the ball has not crossed the line, and not given when it has. There is no better example than in the last major international tournament, the 2010 World Cup, when England's Frank Lampard scored what would have been, should have been, an equalising goal in a vital knockout match against the Germans, only for the officials to rule that the ball had not crossed the line. Instant TV replays showed that it had, by about a yard.

It would be reasonable to expect Uefa's president to do everything in his power to stop referees making such catastrophic howlers, yet he steadfastly continues to oppose the technological advance that practically everyone in football is now demanding: cameras to determine whether or not the ball has crossed the line. Not long after the last World Cup, I interviewed Platini at Uefa's sleek headquarters on the shores of Lake Geneva. He was charismatic, engaging, even beguiling. But Lampard's goal that never was shimmered between us like a malevolent spirit. Surely, he had to see the sense of goal-line technology. Even Blatter, previously opposed to the idea, had come round to it.

Not Platini. In our hour together, no subject – and we discussed many – got him more animated. "My position on that can never change," he said. "The referee must be the man who decides, not a guy in a TV station." Instead, he advocated, and continues to advocate, the use of additional officials. He feels that to stop a football match while video footage is scrutinised would be an affront to the rhythms of the game, and when I cited rugby union as an example of a sport that has successfully embraced camera technology, he grew even more animated.

"When France beat the All Blacks in Cardiff [in the 2007 World Cup quarter-final], there was a try for France, but there was a forward pass at the beginning of the action," he said. "If you don't have the technology for everything, the forward pass as well as the try, you should have nothing. No, I'm totally against it. Football is human."

He's right about that, at least. Football is human. Alas, as we may yet see at Euro 2012, that can be a curse more than a blessing.

A Life In Brief

Born: Michel François Platini, 21 June 1955, Joeuf, France.

Family: His father, Aldo, was a professional footballer and director of AS Nancy. Married since 1977 to Christelle Platini; they have two children.

Education: Joined his first football club at 11; selected for Nancy at 17.

Career: After joining Nancy in 1972, he played for St-Etienne (1979-1982) and Juventus (1982-1987). Called to play for France in 1976 and captained France to victory in Euro 84. Retired in 1987 before becoming French national coach a year later. Member of Uefa executive committee since 2002 before becoming president in 2007.

He says: "Football is a fantastic and intelligent game which teaches us how to live together."

They say: "What a playmaker. He could thread the ball through the eye of a needle." Bobby Charlton