Michel Platini, four years on from his downfall, still stalks the stage | Barney Ronay
As the sun-bleached August prelims fade away and the season proper kicks into gear a significant football date is on the horizon. Contain your excitement if you can. But it is only a month until Michel Platini’s four-year ban from football expires.
The obvious response to this is a shrug of mild bemusement and some vague comment about four years not really feeling like four years any more. You know you’re getting old when even the discredited elderly football administrators start looking younger.
This is, of course, only a technical unbanning. Platini is unlikely to vault back into a governance role any time soon. He is currently suing pretty much everyone, was questioned in June as part of a police investigation into World Cup corruption and has made his scorn for the unctuous Gianni Infantino clear.
Even before his ban over receipt of a “dishonest payment” Platini was seen as a standard issue buffoon by many in this country, a Clouseau-ish figure brimming with half-baked notions of – believe it or not – financial regulation and rolling back the power of the big clubs; not to mention barely failing, unlike say Jack Warner and Sepp Blatter, to disguise his dislike of the English.
And yet Platini still stalks the stage. Four years on that dead hand continues to clutch and twitch, legacy of perhaps the most interesting figure in the recent history of Big Football administration. If only because his fingerprints really are everywhere.
At the start of the summer, Chelsea and Arsenal played a Europa League final, as devised by Platini, to the strains of the Europa League anthem, composed by Platini’s former son-in-law, and staged at the Olympic Stadium in Baku, which was opened by one M Platini.
Platini it was who gave us the bizarrely pointless multicity Euro finals, due to take place at the end of the current season and who unexpectedly championed the boiling absurdity of Qatar 2022, also now looming into view. There was even another step forward this week for another Platini-heavy issue, with a report in the Sun of progress in the continuing attempts by the European Club Association to wring yet more revenue from the Champions League: more games for the big teams, more guaranteed presence, the collateral death of midweek domestic cup competitions.
The struggle to control European club football always felt like a defining note for Platini, one that perhaps broke him in the end. This week will also mark 12 years since the first Professional Football Strategy Council meeting, a platform for newly elected President Platini to showcase his “ideas and philosophies” about the direction of elite club football.
These were radical. There would be no expansion at the top end. Domestic cups were embraced. Platini suggested 75% of all spectators at major finals should be fans, not corporates, sponsors and VIPs. There he goes, football’s great lost administrator, the man who said yes to less.
It is the most interesting part of the Platini story, another example of football’s irresistible irradiating effects, the way it changes the human material at its centre, an engine not only for greed but for imperial egomania. To understand the motivations of Blatter you simply had to watch him cradle and fondle and caress the World Cup itself on stage in Zurich, clutching it to his cheek in an orgy of mutual golden frottage, a man in thrall to his own spectacle.
At which point fast-forward 12 years to another stage, and Eric Cantona’s speech at the Uefa awards ceremony in Monaco on Thursday evening. Much of the reaction to this has tended to linger on the strangely touching look of bemusement on Cristiano Ronaldo’s face as Cantona accepted the president’s award by reciting parts of Gloucester’s terrifying soliloquy in Act IV of King Lear – at this point Gloucester has had his eyes gouged out and been left to wander the heath, sockets still bleeding – before talking about the end of human cell-death and then wandering off.
Cantona sees himself as a kind of high-end situationist prankster in these situations, there to bring his ray of searing truth, to subvert the dominant dynamics of machine consumerist culture, mainly by wearing a fishing hat and saying things that make people weird and creeped out.
Which is, to be fair, exactly what happened. Ronaldo’s public face is such a gorgeously reassuring construct, the face of a hyper-advanced replicant sexbot gradually gaining control of its human emotion circuit boards but content for now with feeling really great about how good its abs are; but even the Ronaldo face seemed to collapse a little as a ripple of something raw and accusatory passed through the Uefa hall.
And no doubt Cantona would see himself as a direct counterpoint to Platini, who adored him as a player, who talked him out of early retirement and made him captain of France. In time, Cantona came to despise the ex-president as a hypocrite, a fraud, “a plague”, the man who bent in the glare.
What did Platini want? To be his own man and to parade as some kind of sporting conscience. He ended up voting for the absurdity of Qatar 2022, abandoning his ideals on big clubs and big finance and being banned from football for something that looked like corruption. During France’s Euros he walked around Paris disguised in dark glasses and a hat, a man who on the pitch was always a step ahead, pulling the game into shape like a piece of thread strung through a baggy set of curtains; but who found himself beaten thin, and ultimately lost within the machine.
The age of Michel still has some time to run. Platini himself, unbanned but still in exile, seems likely to remain no more than a hostile curiosity.