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Old 26th October 2008, 13:19   #1
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Default This man can save English football

The interview
This man can save English football

It seems that every time he opens his mouth, Uefa president Michel Platini annoys English football fans. But is the great French midfielder of the 1980s the most powerful Anglophobe in sport - or an unlikely defender of this country's footballing culture?

* Andrew Hussey
* The Observer,
* Sunday October 26 2008

The most important building in European football is a stylish labyrinth of steel and glass in Nyon, a town tucked away on the banks of Lake Geneva on the edges of French-speaking Switzerland. This is the headquarters of Uefa, where every big decision about football, from the size of the balls for youth teams to the rules of their international competitions, is made. Appropriately enough for an organisation often demonised by English fans as the enemy of the game, the place has something of the look and atmosphere of the lair of a James Bond baddie. Uefa foot soldiers scurry busily about the sleek and gleaming corridors; if the place ever caught fire, or came under assault from English fans, you can just imagine them making good their escape in the underground tunnels, heading for the boats and then the tranquil lake beyond.

Not that the officials of Uefa have anything to worry about right now. This place has a supremely confident atmosphere, as befits an organisation that has been running European football since 1955 and is now home to the Champions League, and all other European competitions at every level. This confidence is also exuded by Michel Platini, Uefa's president, as we shake hands in the boardroom and sit down to discuss the future of football in Europe, including the Premier League. Platini is slightly chubbier than in his mid-1980s prime when, with Juventus and France, he was probably the best midfielder in the world, but he has lost none of his impish charm. His eyes have a roguish, humorous glint and he is quick to take off his jacket, serve coffee and joke about the grandeur of his position, which he took up in 2007.

But he is deadly serious about his new role as the most important man in the European game. Unlike his predecessor, Lennart Johansson, Platini is unafraid of controversy. Traditionally the role is one of soft diplomacy, negotiating around the big and powerful clubs. One of the accusations made against Uefa in the past has been that they have run scared of those clubs, intimidated by their financial and political clout. But this is not how Platini sees his organisation.

'Uefa has a big role as the guardian of European football,' he says. 'It is not about money but values. And that is why I am here.' This is not, however, the way many people in England see it. Most notably, Platini's scathing comments on the Premier League, arguing mainly that it has distorted the balance of power in European football, tipping the odds permanently in favour of the richest English clubs, have made him many enemies at the top level of the game.

The black propaganda about Platini is that he is simply anti-English; the complaints are down at grassroots level, in blogs and on the terraces. The case against him is based on his refusal to back England's bid to host the 2018 World Cup and his comment in June that, on their current form, the England team would not be missed from Euro 2008: 'England's absence means nothing to me,' he famously remarked. This is when the blogs went ballistic, accusing Platini of every Gallic crime under the sun, from cowardice to outright Brit-bashing.

But none of this is as simple as it seems; Platini would say he has the greatest respect for England as the home of football. This is why he wants to save us from ourselves, by which he means the over-arching power and sheer tedium of the Premier League. One of his most provocative steps was his 2007 proposal that major European countries allocate a Champions League place to the winners of their national cup. This, in England's case, would mean replacing the fourth team in the league with the FA Cup winners.

Predictably, this was given short shrift by the G-14 - a group of the most powerful clubs in Europe, since superseded by the larger European Club Association. The Premier League clubs, with Liverpool and Manchester United leading the way, have been particularly angry that a hard-fought-for Champions League place, with its massive financial rewards, could go to, say, Stoke or Aston Villa - teams who in any given year could pull off a good cup run and might then become rich without the benefit of multimillionaire backers.

So far Uefa and Platini have backed off in the face of the opposition, but are still seeking to introduce less cash-rich countries into the footballing elite of Spain, Italy, Germany and England. For example Platini's latest plans, announced this summer, include investigating the high levels of debt at the top clubs. He calls this 'cheating' and wants to establish 'a level playing field'. Manchester United and Chelsea in particular have taken umbrage at this, although you cannot help feeling that is because at some level they know Platini is right. He also wants to introduce a ban on international transfers on players under the age of 18, which he says will stop clubs poaching players from poorer and more vulnerable countries.

Ordinary English fans are also suspicious of Platini's perceived attacks on the Premier League, guessing that what he really wants to do is prevent the kind of English superiority that led to Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United battling it out in the final four places in last season's Champions League. The more rabid fans see him as a demented French racist who hates the English and wants to undo the 'golden age' of the Premier League. So is he a hero, villain or madman?

Platini laughs at the question. But he is also quick to make two penetrating points: first, that there is no such thing as the 'golden age' of the Premier League, merely a permanent stand-off between the richest teams, all of whom are supported by unfeasible levels of debt. 'All fans of football in England know in their hearts that this is the case,' he tells me. 'Soon in England you will have no English players, no English managers, just foreign speculators.' Most damagingly, Platini also asserts that so-called 'English superiority' is a myth when nearly all of the players in the top English teams are foreigners. 'You have to ask yourself what that means for football at a national level. England is the traditional home of football, but do you think that England will ever win the World Cup again? When you look at the statistics right now - when hardly any English players are in the final stages of the Champions League - it is a good question, and the answer is probably no. At least it will not happen under the present structures.' Although his critics could point out that there were 10 England players in the starting line-ups when Manchester United played Chelsea in May's final.

Platini's most powerful enemy at the highest level is Richard Scudamore, the chief executive of the Premier League, who, in a response to Platini's suggestion in 2007 that the power of the Premier League had to be curtailed, described his views as not much more than you would hear in 'the corner of a pub'. Platini smiles again. 'I am a football man, not a businessman or a politician, and so I would rather be closer to the fans in the pub than, say, Richard Scudamore. You have to remember that football is a game - a beautiful game, yes, and one that makes millions, but it is a game, a spectacle made for the fans and not the money-men.' The most recent manager to face Platini's barbs is Arsène Wenger, who was accused by Platini in the pages of the Bordeaux newspaper Sud-Ouest of poaching youngsters of 13 for the Arsenal academy. 'Arsène is TMPG - Tout pour ma gueule [Everything for my own gob],' he said. Platini recanted a week later in the pages of Le Parisien. 'I was too hard on Arsène,' he said in a rather meagre apology. But still the point was made.

Throughout his playing career, Michel Platini was a crowd-pleaser. The defining features of his style were an elegant mastery of long, dribbling runs, often at top speed, and an indomitable bravado that endeared him to players and fans alike. His early career was often marred by injury - he was a carefree player in the tough French league of the 1970s and early 1980s, a far more physical environment than it is now. He never walked away from even the toughest defenders, preferring to dazzle them into submission.

He began his professional career with AS Nancy in 1972, winning the French second division in 1975 and the French Cup three years later, but hit the heights with Saint-Etienne. When Platini joined in 1979, Saint-Etienne were ambitious and hungry for a European trophy. But they were also a team in a long, slow decline and, despite success in the French league in 1981, the great nights of European glory that they had known in the 1970s - most notably losing narrowly in the final of the European Cup in 1976 - were a fading memory.

Platini stamped his authority on European football as the midfield general of Juventus in the mid-1980s. He joined the Italians in 1982 and was the top scorer in Serie A three times running. But it was not always straightforward: he had a shaky start in Turin and at first thought of leaving Italy under pressure from its media cauldron. Forging a world-class partnership with the Pole Zbigniew Boniek, however, he led Juventus to the 1984 European Cup-Winners' Cup and the European Super Cup.

In 1985, he scored the winning goal - a controversial penalty - against Liverpool in the European Cup final at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels. This was the terrible night when 39 fans were killed during riots that brought down a stadium wall. Platini has gone down in Scouse folklore as the man who celebrated the disputed penalty with far too much enthusiasm. I have to say that as a Liverpool fan watching that night with the same sick feeling as everyone else, I too remember the clenched fist to the Juve crowd, baying for a dark revenge on Liverpool. I feel it my duty to ask Platini how he felt that night. It is the only moment when he looks uncomfortable. 'Those are bad memories,' he says. 'They were bad times for football. But I did not know what was happening in the stadium. My parents were in the crowd and they didn't know either. But the match had to be played, and I did my duty.'

Footage of the match bears out Platini's testimony; he does indeed wave his fist at the crowd in celebration, but then straightaway he is grim-faced, resolute, back on task. The dreadful atmosphere had evidently got to him too, whether or not he knew what was happening.

According to Platini himself, the greatest match he played in was the classic encounter between France and West Germany in the 1982 World Cup semi-finals, in Seville. This match had everything - full-on drama, twists of fate and two opponents equally matched in skill and desire. Most significantly, it was a clash between two footballing philosophies - the hard-core machine-like efficiency of West Germany and the lightning-quick brilliance of the elegant French, who could fairly make claim to be the 'European Brazil'. There was also an obvious villain in German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher, who battered the French defender Patrick Battiston to the ground, knocking him unconscious. Schumacher briefly made himself the most hated man in football, as he preened in front of goal, taunting the French fans, and eventually saving the penalty that took the Germans through to the final. 'It should have been our World Cup,' Platini says now, without the least sense of nostalgia, 'but that's what football is about. It's tragedy and heartbreak as well as winning. It is also about values - it's about good and evil.'

With this, Platini returns to the theme of football values and the Premier League. 'It's also clear that money does not make a team,' he says. 'The example of Manchester City will be very interesting, but whatever happens it won't be about football but about politics and economics. And it's also debt. What happens when the money moves on? This is what happens in capitalist economic systems and it will happen.' I put it to him that what he is describing is essentially a conflict between Anglo-Saxon neo-liberalism and the European model of corporatist socialism. 'I prefer to say democratic socialism,' he says. 'But, yes. That is the situation.'

In a weak defence of the Premier League, I cite the examples of Silvio Berlusconi and Gianni Agnelli bankrolling AC Milan and Juventus, respectively. But I am quickly wrong-footed by the wily Frenchman. 'Ah, but Agnelli was from Turin and Berlusconi from Milan. They were football men. I have nothing against millionaires but they must have football values and some link with the club. American and Arabian owners can never properly be part of the fans.'

But did this mean that the French League, for example, had some moral authority over the Premier League? 'It is a different case,' he says. 'The French League exports players, which means that it can have success at a national level. Although my own opinion is that French football has become too technical, and that is why they are not too successful at the moment. They work hard at Clairefontaine [the most famous of France's nine elite training academies] but football is not just about work. Also' - and suddenly we're back to the iniquities of the Premier League! - ' I think many young French players are too interested in money in England than football in France.'

Platini comes to life when we discuss French football culture. Not least of his achievements was to be part of a generation of French footballers who garnered the interest of French intellectuals, both for their elegant style of play and as part of the growing importance of mass culture in stuffy old highbrow France. 'Until the 1980s, football in France was a game for beaufs [chavs],' he says. 'I was even ashamed to tell my wife I was a footballer. [President] Mitterrand was a fan of football but he kept it quiet because the intellectuals would have sneered at him.' All of this changed with the Platini generation of the France team, which with Alain Giresse and Jean Tigana in the midfield was both flamboyant and elegant. Arguably, the Zinedine Zidane generation, which won the 1998 World Cup, would never have happened without these three: certainly the French love affair with football, which was pretty much universal throughout the 1990s, was born with this team.

Platini is still very keen to present himself as a man of the people, an ordinary bloke, the voice of footballing common sense. But beneath this carefully constructed surface, there is a fierce and cunning intelligence. This is a man unafraid to use the word 'hegemony' in public (just imagine even Alan Hansen deploying this word correctly and with ease) and his ruffled charm has even made him an icon of France's gay community.

Most famously, and perhaps most strangely, in 1987 Platini gave a long interview in the pages of the radical newspaper Libération to the writer Marguerite Duras. To find an equivalent these days, this would be like Wayne Rooney in dialogue with AC Grayling. To make matters more confused, Duras - then the feminist icon of the French literary establishment - was a disciple of Georges Bataille, the notoriously convoluted philosopher of an erotic form of existentialism. Duras asked Platini questions such as: 'To be a footballer of genius is to be a martyr. You play in a dream, beyond any law - is this angelic or demonic?'

'Quite frankly I have no idea what she was on about,' Platini says now. 'But it was extremely good fun. And it got me known with intellectuals. And that's OK. But I am a football man.'

And with this, we're back to the present day. Platini's big message is that he is here 'to protect football'. He has a tough job on his hands - as he acknowledges, his mission at Uefa is at least as big as any of the footballing challenges he has faced. He is adamant that his presidency is not just an honorary position and that, just because he has been rebuffed by the big guns in the early stages, it does not mean the game is over. 'I believe in football,' he says. 'I am not here for any other purpose than to make sure it survives in the form that we all came to love it - as a simple game that gives pleasure and excitement and beauty to everyone. And that includes the English fans.'

Certainly, Platini does look like he is taking Uefa to some interesting places. He is a sly political operator, suited for the feints and counter-feints of the game's administration. Most significantly, he has a clear agenda for change, which he intends to implement across the board. He argues that change must come from the bottom up and that the youth academies, which are in fact 'football factories where young players are force-fed a diet of over-training and financial cynicism', are killing the game: 'Football has a social role,' he insists, 'which is not just about taking young lads from third-world countries and making them into superstars.' Under Platini, Uefa aim to restore the balance between local and amateur clubs and what he calls 'le grand football' of big business. All of this will need to be regulated by Uefa.

It is no less than a battle for the soul of soccer. Platini is not anti-English. He speaks with authority and love of the English game. But like many of us in England, he is nostalgic for a time when English football was a real game rather than an exercise in financial one-upmanship.

He is also passionate about the game. More to the point, outside the boardrooms of the richest clubs, every fan who wants to be a real supporter rather than a consumer knows he is right. If he gets his way, it may just be that the crafty Frenchman with an eye for the main chance will be the unlikely saviour of English football.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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