Michel Platini: 'The referee must decide, not a guy in front of a tv'

The Brian Viner Interview: The Uefa president hits out at Sepp Blatter's stance on goal-line technology, justifies the Financial Fair Play idea but says he is undecided over England's 2018 bid

Saturday 20 November 2010 01:00 GMT
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The temperature in Switzerland took a dramatic dive earlier this week, causing almost as much consternation in the sleek, glass-and-steel headquarters of Uefa in Nyon on the shores of Lake Geneva as might a dramatic dive in a European final. On the morning I visit, a blanket of thick cloud hangs low over the lake, for which one Uefa functionary actually apologises. A day earlier, he says, it was positively warm, with vivid views of Mont Blanc. Now, all is grey, chilly, damp, inhospitable. My hope is that the mood of Uefa's illustrious president, Michel Platini, will not match the weather.

Happily, it does not. The great man – who has scaled the same heights as a bureaucrat that he did as a brilliant midfield playmaker for Nancy, St Etienne, Juventus and France – is all smiles as he walks into an airy conference room for our early-morning meeting; he even cracks a little joke as he pours himself a cup of tea, without milk, saying that it would have to be vodka if it were a Russian journalist interviewing him. He is accompanied by Uefa's director of communications, William Gaillard, an urbane Frenchman educated in the United States, with fluent English. Platini's heavily-accented English is more than serviceable, and better than my French, but he frequently turns to Gaillard to help him out. "On very sensitive matters I need my interpreter," he explains, chuckling.

As it happens, I have a list of sensitive matters to put before him, including England's troubled bid to host the 2018 World Cup, of which more later, and the introduction of goal-line technology which England, and Frank Lampard in particular, would have dearly loved to have been in place during this summer's World Cup.

Not Platini. He feels strongly that he would be betraying the game he loves by supporting goal-line technology. His Fifa counterpart, Sepp Blatter, is seemingly now ready to embrace it. Platini would sooner embrace a rabid dog. And it is this subject that gets him more animated than any other.

"My position on that can never change," he says, firmly. But Blatter's position has changed, I venture. Platini makes a noise somewhere between a sniff and a snort. "He always changes. At the last international board he said no more technology [debates], but after the World Cup he changes. I will never change. The referee must be the man who decides, not a guy in a TV station. Of course, the TV replays now show how difficult it is to be a referee. I've been saying that to Blatter for 15 years. The referee is alone, one man in an area 120 metres by 80 metres. There are things he doesn't see. That's why we propose in the Champions League to have an additional official on the line. But if we put in video technology, people will come back in two years and say 'why isn't there technology for the whole penalty area? Why isn't there offside-line technology?' Then it becomes another game, not football."

If Platini's English were up to it, I suspect he might refer to the thin end of the wedge. Whatever, I understand his argument. But isn't it more romantic than rational? After all, rugby makes successful use of the cameras.

"Yes, but rugby is different. I like rugby, and I have spoken many times to Serge Blanco about this. In rugby there are, perhaps, five or six tries per game. In football, there are four cases [of disputed goals in major tournaments] in 40 years. In my career, it never happened at all. It would cost a lot of money for nothing. Also, in the World Cup, when Lampard's shot crossed the line, the ball bounced back into the hands of the goalkeeper, who kicked it out, and 10 seconds later, the Germans scored. What do you do [with a TV judgement in that instance]? Do you bring the play back? And perhaps there was a foul before Lampard's shot. Do you bring the play back to there, or back even further because before the foul there should have been a corner? No, for me it would be a disaster."

Twice during this impassioned speech, Platini has risen to his feet, to act out the scenario he describes. And he hasn't finished yet. "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. If you don't have technology for everything, the forward pass as well as the try, you should have nothing. No, I'm totally against it. Football is human. I understand people want more justice, so let's give them more policemen. At the Champions League final last year there was just [Howard] Webb [refereeing] and I was like this." Platini simulates nervously shaking hands. "I was worried. But at the Europa League final, with extra officials, I was sure there would be no mistake."

He leans forward. "In tennis there is video technology but no contact between players, and 12 referees. Let's try more referees first."

And let's turn to England's World Cup bid. As a member of Fifa's executive committee, now reduced from 24 to 22 following the suspensions of Amos Adamu and Reynald Temarii on Thursday, Platini has a vote at the decisive meeting on 2 December, and was a recipient of the recent letter signed by Geoff Thompson and David Dein, the bid's chairman and international chairman, imploring delegates not to be turned against England by allegations of corruption in the Sunday Times and the forthcoming edition of Panorama.

"Ah, yes, the letter," says Platini with a smile. "'Don't worry about the press, etcetera etcetera'. I don't think it's a problem. These investigations are just people doing their job, no? If they [those spearheading the England bid] do not have a good feeling about Fifa, that's nothing to do with these investigations, that comes from what the English press has been writing about Fifa for very many years. That could be a problem for the bid. But this? No. Why not [make the allegations of corruption], if it's there? Anyway, I think people have already decided which way they are voting."

Has he? "No, because my job is different. My job was to win the World Cup for Europe, and that's what I have done. All four bids are good, and at the last moment I will decide. I would prefer not to vote at all, but I have a responsibility."

He has shouldered his responsibility, he feels, with Uefa's new Financial Fair Play regulations, to be phased in over three years and sensibly designed to get football clubs spending within their means, stopping the kind of excesses that, for example, holed Portsmouth below the waterline. The matter will be discussed in depth at a press conference on 13 December, Platini explains, but in the meantime he hopes that saving clubs from their own financial incontinence, and in so doing levelling the playing field so that billionaire owners cannot simply create a new self-perpetuating elite, will be the main legacy of his presidency. "We have done a lot of things, many things that you don't see. We have democratised the Champions League. But this, Financial Fair Play, will be the greatest thing."

He is delighted, he adds, that there seems to be universal support for the idea. "The clubs themselves would never do it, so we had to put the regulations in place. They know we are not here to kill them, we're here to help them. They all said, [Internazionale owner Massimo] Moratti, [Milan owner Silvio] Berlusconi, 'we have to do this'. But you must understand that we're not against debts. If you want to buy a house, you create a debt. That's fine. Football needs debts. But if you borrow money you must be able to pay it back. We are against losses, not debts."

Nonetheless, let me this time propose a scenario to him. If he were playing now, Manchester City might offer him £1m per week to join them, an offer that abides by the regulations but hardly seems like fair play? Whether wilfully or not, Platini slightly misunderstands my point. "Perhaps I wouldn't play now. I left my family at 18, 17, but now boys leave home at 14, 13. Perhaps at 13 I'd have got injured. Now, young boys are picked, taken, manufactured..."

It's a practice which has already set him at loggerheads with his compatriot Arsène Wenger, one of the keenest acquirers of raw young talent. And I can see why he dislikes it. But what of clubs tempting established talent with wages, within the means of their billionaire owners, that confound even football reality. "That's all included in Financial Fair Play, and in December we will say more about it. Expenditure will need to be covered by revenue."

The new regulations are plainly a good thing, even if there is some concern that they might simply cement into place the financial inequality in football that exists already. I ask Platini whether he considers this inequality to be the game's biggest problem? "No, it's nothing," he says. "It has always existed. From the very beginning some clubs are bought by rich owners. No, the worst thing is match-fixing, match-fixing because of betting, because it touches the game itself. Yes, we have problems with violence, with racism, with doping, but to fix a game is to attack the soul of football. To know the result before the start of the game is a disaster for me, for you, for everyone who loves football."

What, then, can he do about it? A wry smile. "I am the president of Uefa, not Scotland Yard. I need help. We have doubts about some games, about the money flows. If €500,000 is bet on a three-goal difference, and it is 1-1 five minutes before the end, and ends 4-1, then something is going on. We have an early-warning system in place if there is [excessive] betting, and we spend €9m every year on this warning system, which covers the top two divisions in 53 national associations. But I can't investigate [a dodgy match] myself, or send Mr Gaillard. We have to go to the prosecutors. It's difficult.

"You know, I scored 400 goals in my career. That's 400 goalkeeping mistakes. You can't investigate every one. And I'm not against betting. You have had betting in your English culture for many years. It is not so in France. But I don't mind betting, I mind match-fixing. It is a big problem."

Was there ever any suggestion of it when he was playing? A pause, which I take as an affirmative. "But not because of betting, because they wanted to win the game. I never saw it myself. Of course, if I am playing against you, and you need one point to be champion, and I need one point not to go down, it will be a draw. Even if I don't speak to you, it will be a draw. In sport, if your interests don't diverge, this will happen. Like with Austria and Germany [playing out a mutually convenient draw in the 1982 World Cup]." The Uefa president looks solemn for a moment, then smiles. "That is sport," he says.

The administrator

Michel Platini says 'my job was to win the [2018] World Cup for Europe and that's what I have done. All four bids are good.'

The player

Platini was the captain and heartbeat of the gifted France team that won the European Championship on home soil in 1984. He was also European Player of the Year from 1983-85.

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