By Brian Homewood
ZURICH (Reuters) – European soccer chiefs will have to decide on Thursday whether to continue backing Michel Platini as the FIFA presidential hopeful battles an ethics probe or whether to quietly drop the man who has been their unquestioned leader for eight years.
They could try to push for postponement of the Feb. 26 FIFA presidential election, a move which could conceivably give Platini time to prove his innocence but which could also be interpreted as an attempt to move the goalposts.
Otherwise, they will be left with less than two weeks to find an alternative before the Oct. 26 deadline when candidates have to register officially.
For the last year, European soccer’s governing body UEFA has played the role of a disapproving onlooker as FIFA, the sport’s global body, has been engulfed by the worst crisis in its 111-year history.
Platini, who was first elected as UEFA president in 2007 and has twice been re-elected unopposed, has himself said that repeated reports of corruption involving FIFA made his stomach turn.
But the situation changed dramatically when FIFA president Sepp Blatter and Platini were given a 90-ban by FIFA’s ethics committee last Thursday, pending a full investigation into both men’s activities.
Two weeks earlier, Switzerland’s attorney general’s office had initiated criminal proceedings against Blatter over a two million Swiss francs ($2.1 million) payment from FIFA to Platini in 2011.
The payment was made nine years after the Frenchman, described by prosecutors as “between a witness and an accused persons”, completed a spell working for Blatter as an adviser.
Platini, who handed in his nomination papers hours before his ban, himself described events as “farcical”, the accusations against him as “astonishingly vague” and said numerous associations had stood behind him.
Platini has appealed but, unless he were to be given a swift appeal victory, he would still be suspended on Oct 26 and would find himself in the very tricky position of trying to pass that test while banned from the game.
On Thursday, UEFA’s 54 member associations will meet at its lakeside headquarters near Geneva to discuss their response.
Initially, UEFA had said that its executive committee had “full confidence” in Platini and “stands fully behind him”.
It was the sort of loyalty which Platini would have expected. In eight years at the helm, the former French international has managed to appease both the powerful European clubs, who reap the benefits of a financially successful Champions League competition, and the smaller national associations.
By an ironic twist, the last week has seen Albania and Wales both qualify for Euro 2016 amid wild celebrations, both benefitting from his administration’s decision to increase the number of teams at the Euro finals from 16 to twenty-four.
But there have been signs that support has begun to wither.
“I was deeply disappointed when the story of the two million francs appeared. It raises many questions to which we have still not received a reply. I hope we will have one on Thursday,” UEFA executive committee member Allan Hansen told the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet on Wednesday.
Jesper Moller, current head of the Danish FA, added: “It is also self-evident that we cannot vote for a man who has been suspended.”
Italy was one of the first federations to back Platini’s candidate yet its president Carlo Tavecchio declined to give unconditional support for Platini.
Leo Windtner, head of the Austrian federation, said UEFA’s crisis management had to react quickly and make sure “that Europe accomplishes something with Oct. 26 in mind.”
On Tuesday, former FIFA secretary-general Michel Zen Ruffinen said he had received requests to stand and was studying the situation while sources close to FIFA said that Dutch FA president Michael van Praag might also launch a bid.
The alternative would be to press the FIFA executive committee, which will meet on Oct. 20, to postpone the FIFA election.
Two sources with knowledge of the discussions told Reuters on Friday that a such a scenario was being discussed within FIFA and its member organizations, such as UEFA, which would give Platini more time. However, that could risk damaging UEFA’s credibility.
“All football leaders must realise that the next president of FIFA must be beyond any suspicion, it is not a legal question, it is not even a truly political question, it is question of reputation,” said Jens Sejer Andersen, head of the Danish-based Play the Game foundation.
“There must be other European candidates that would have less trouble passing integrity checks,” said Deborah Unger, a manager at anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.
“Stalling the elections at this point is not a good idea. FIFA has a vacuum at the top. It needs to be filled and as we have said in the past, this should be by a truly independent reform commission and they should start their work sooner rather than later.”
(Editing by Richard Balmforth)