Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini, once chief executives of world and European football, were cleared on Friday over an alleged fraudulent payment that rocked the sport and torpedoed their way to the top.
The Federal Criminal Court in the southern city of Bellinzona acquitted both men in a trial following a mammoth investigation that began in 2015 and lasted six years.
Former FIFA president Blatter, 86, and Platini, 67, listened in silence as the clerk read the judgment which rejected the prosecution’s request for a suspended prison sentence of one year and eight months.
“A neutral tribunal has finally found that no wrongdoing occurred in this case. My client is fully exonerated and relieved accordingly,” said Platini’s attorney, Dominic Nellen.
Former French football great Platini released a short statement claiming to have “won the first round”, while alluding to alleged political and judicial manipulation intended to remove him from power.
“In this case, there are culprits who did not appear during this trial. Let them count on me: we will find each other,” he said.
Platini was employed as an adviser to Blatter between 1998 and 2002.
Blatter told the court that when he took over as FIFA president in 1998, world football’s governing body had a poor record and he thought someone who had been a figurehead in the game could to help.
He turned to Platini for advice, which involved political trips, reform of the international calendar and financial aid to national federations.
They signed a contract in 1999 for an annual remuneration of 300,000 Swiss francs, entirely paid for by FIFA.
But the pair went on trial for a payment of two million Swiss francs ($2.05 million) in 2011 to Platini, who was then in charge of European football’s governing body UEFA.
– ‘Gentleman’s agreement’ –
Former world football chief Blatter told the court the pair had reached a “gentleman’s agreement” for Platini to receive one million Swiss francs a year.
Platini had jokingly asked Blatter for a million, without specifying the currency, and the then FIFA president agreed that some of the money – apart from the contract they signed – would be paid “later,” the court said.
The rest would be settled when FIFA’s fragile finances allowed, Blatter said, in an agreement reached orally and without witnesses.
Platini was accused of submitting an allegedly fictitious invoice to FIFA in 2011 for a claimed debt still unpaid for his consultancy work.
Both were charged with fraud and forgery. Blatter was charged with embezzlement and criminal mismanagement, while Platini was charged with participating in these offences.
Blatter and Platini maintained their innocence throughout their trial, which ran from June 8-22.
But the court considered that the fraud was “not established with a likelihood bordering on certainty”, and therefore applied the general principle of criminal law according to which “the doubt must benefit the accused”.
The indictment was filed by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office.
FIFA and UEFA have their headquarters in Switzerland, respectively in Zurich and Nyon.
– Power drama –
Both Platini and Blatter were banned from the sport just when the former seemed ideally placed to succeed Blatter as head of world football’s governing body.
The two allies became rivals as Platini grew eager to take over, while Blatter’s tenure was quickly cut short by a separate FIFA corruption scandal in 2015 investigated by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. United.
Joseph “Sepp” Blatter joined FIFA in 1975, became its general secretary in 1981 and president of world football’s governing body in 1998.
He was forced to retire in 2015 and was banned by FIFA for eight years, then reduced to six years, for ethical breaches for authorizing the payment to Platini, allegedly made for his own interest rather than that of of FIFA.
Platini is considered one of the greatest players in world football. He won the Ballon d’Or, considered the most prestigious individual award, three times, in 1983, 1984 and 1985.
Platini served as UEFA President from January 2007 to December 2015.
He appealed his initial eight-year ban to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which reduced it to four years.