Sepp Blatter, the former FIFA president, and his one-time ally Michel Platini were acquitted of fraud on Friday in the latest attempt by Swiss prosecutors to win convictions in a seven-year probe into corruption at the highest level of world soccer.
The trial, held in the southern Swiss town of Bellinzona, related to a $2 million payment arranged in 2011 by Blatter, who led soccer’s world governing body for 17 years, to Platini, a former France international who was president at the time. European soccer’s governing body and Blatter’s potential successor as the sport’s most powerful executive.
Prosecutors called the payment a bribe and said it happened while Blatter was seeking re-election. 82-year-old Blatter and 67-year-old Platini denied the crime; They have long maintained that the money was for work done by Platinum over several years.
The criminal charges of fraud, mismanagement and forgery against the two men come after a years-long investigation into the payment, which came to light in 2015 after US Justice Department prosecutors uncovered corrupt practices at FIFA dating back at least two decades.
The US investigation led to the arrest and trial of dozens of powerful soccer officials and marketing executives on charges that included racketeering, fraud and money laundering conspiracy. Blatter was not among the defendants at the time, and although he has been the subject of various investigations over the years, the fraud allegations for Platini were the first time he had been charged with a criminal offense.
The $2 million payment for Platin came after Blatter faced a strong challenge for the FIFA presidency from Qatari billionaire Mohammed bin Hammam, who was the head of Asian football at the time. Blatter and Platini both said the money was a delayed payment related to work Platini, captain of France’s 1984 European Championship-winning team, did for Blatter after he was first elected FIFA president in 1998.
During the trial, Blatter told the court that the money was part of a “gentleman’s agreement” he made with Platini, who agreed to advise him for about $1 million a year. “The payment will be made ‘later’,” Blatter said of their agreement.
“When Blatter asked me to be his adviser, he asked me what salary I wanted,” Platini said later. “I was surprised that he asked me that question and I said, ‘I want a million.’
Blatter and Platini could be sentenced to 5 years in prison if found guilty.
FIFA’s disciplinary system eventually banned both men from the game, although their original bans were later reduced on appeal. They were due to expire in October, but Blatter’s new suspension on various counts took effect when it expired, meaning he will be banned from the game until 2028, when he will be 92.
After the verdict, Platini said justice had been served “after seven years of lies and manipulation”.
He previously took aim at FIFA’s current management under his former deputy, Gianni Infantino. Infantino went from a candidate for the FIFA presidency to its leader when Platini first faced allegations in 2015 and after Blatter resigned amid a Justice Department investigation and arrests.
Platini suggested he would continue to fight to clear his name; He filed a criminal complaint against Infantino in April. “There are criminals in this case who did not appear at the trial,” he said. “Let me hope that we will meet again. Because I will not give up and I will go to the end in search of the truth.”