Football: Platini looks for break in the clouds: Simon O'Hagan meets the Frenchman hoping to steer his nation to better times

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WRAPPED up against the cold, the thick-set, moustachioed figure stands to attention on the runway and gazes into the camera. To the left is another man, his demeanour no less formal, and behind them the biplane they are about to step into. The year is 1932, and Jules Rimet, the founder of the World Cup, and his colleague Henri Delaunay are on their way to Stockholm for a Fifa meeting.

This evocative black and white photograph, blown up to about two feet by three, adorns the reception area of a discreet, fifth-floor office on the Champs Elysees. And down the corridor is the Frenchman who, almost as much as Rimet himself, is synonymous with the sport.

Michel Platini is also on a journey - to the 1998 World Cup, of which he is the joint organiser, and these are the headquarters. But while Rimet and Delaunay are taking off into cloudless skies - figuratively speaking, at any rate - Platini and his co-pilot Fern and Sastre, a former president of the French Football Federation, have already experienced a spot of turbulence. And the footballing landscape they are looking down on contains some pretty awful sights.

English football may think it has had a bad year. But it's nothing to what the French have been through: first the bribes scandal surrounding Marseille's victory in the European Cup final in May; and then last month the national team's failure to secure the one point they needed from their final two qualifying games, both at home, to take them to next year's World Cup.

If England fans still find it hard to believe how Poland thwarted the team in 1973 - the worst footballing moment we can offer by way of comparison - imagine how the French feel after first Israel and then Bulgaria managed to win in Paris, the latter with a last-minute goal.

As France indulged in bouts of self-recrimination, the casualties were counted: Gerard Houllier, the national team manager, resigned (to be replaced, last Friday, by his assistant Aime Jacquet); the president of the French Football Federation, Jean Fournet-Fayard, went too; and Jean-Pierre Papin, France's star striker, announced he was giving up international football.

Meanwhile, the repercussions of the Marseille scandal have a long way to run. Stripped of the European Cup and banned from this season's tournament, they have also had their 1993 League title taken away from them by the French federation. Financially, they have been plunged into crisis, and they now await the outcome of a judicial inquiry into the bribes allegations. It all adds up to an annee horrible.

Platini, though, seems as relaxed as he always did when he was one of the best midfield players the game has ever had. Strolling round his huge office in a loose-fitting pin-striped suit, taking phone calls from his friend Jean-Claude Killy, looking forward to a spot of lunch with the committee of the Legion d'Honneur (Platini was a recipient of France's highest award eight years ago), he doesn't seek to defend what has happened in French football, but he doesn't think the problems go that deep either.

'The game against Israel was a national catastrophe,' Platini, now 38, says. 'One point from two games? How could we fail? But the French team isn't a bad one. It came down to human error. Mentally, the team wasn't right. It wasn't prepared properly.' And that is as far as Platini goes in criticising Houllier, who, when Platini had been the manager, was his No 2, taking over after France's poor showing in the European Championship in Sweden last year.

Would the team have done better if Platini had remained? After all, France had won every game under him in qualifying for Sweden, a feat never before achieved. 'I cannot say. But I don't regret resigning. Always I have had new experiences in football. This job is another and I am enjoying it very much. I can't see myself going back to coaching. If I get involved in the team again it would only be at some sort of executive level.'

Platini appreciates that the image of the French game has suffered, and that the country looks to him, the nearest thing they have to a footballing saint. 'We need a period of calm,' he says. Platini has a theory that what he calls the modern era in French football did not begin until the mid-Seventies, later than in most European nations, and that its problems seem worse for having been concentrated into a short period.

Others are not so ready to down-play what has happened. Fournet-Fayard's nine-year tenure as federation president, when hardly a season went by without some financial irregularity surfacing and which was also blighted by the stadium disaster in Corsica last year in which 14 fans died, is largely discredited. In 1989, Roger Bambuck, the sports minister, wrote of 'laxity in the conduct of high-level football'.

Uefa were similarly unimpressed by the lack of urgency shown in tackling the Marseille question, and threw the club out of Europe. And for one nasty moment, it looked as if Fifa might reconsider its choice of France as World Cup hosts in 1998. Platini is assured that the tournament is theirs, but from now on French football needs to be whiter than white.

To find out why corruption has long been a feature of the game in France - Platini himself was fined over his involvement in a slush fund at St Etienne in the early Eighties - you have to look at the huge sums of money that have been poured into the game by sponsors and television. Clubs in turn have overspent, and then cooked the books as a result.

The Marseille scandal, though, was of a different order even to those that had involved the likes of Bordeaux, Brest, and Nice. And any discussion of Marseille always seems to lead to one man - their controversial chairman, Bernard Tapie. How does Platini see him?

'I have known Bernard well for many years,' he says, choosing his words even more carefully than usual. 'He tried to persuade me to come to Marseille when I was at Juventus. The thing about Bernard is that he's fine to have dinner with or socialise with. I don't think he's so good to do business with.'

Platini takes me across to look at some of the photographs on his wall - huge enlargements of the great French teams of the Seventies and Eighties of which he was the inspiration. And he starts, wistfully, to go through the names of the players - 'Lacombe, Tresor, Lopez, Six . . .'

'You know,' Platini says, 'since 1966, France have qualified for only three World Cups - 1978, 1982 and 1986. The next time will be 1998 when we are the hosts.' And what do those years mean? They mean Michel Platini. Like Rimet before him, this man is truly above it all, and at the moment that is probably the best place to be.

(Photograph omitted)