Sepp Blatter, the former president of FIFA, and his onetime ally Michel Platini were acquitted of fraud on Friday in the latest attempt by Swiss prosecutors to win a conviction in a sprawling, seven-year investigation into corruption at the highest levels of world soccer.
The trial, held in the southern Swiss city of Bellinzona, was related to a $2 million payment arranged in 2011 by Blatter, who led world soccer’s governing body for 17 years, to Platini, a former France player who was at the time the president of European soccer’s governing body and a potential heir to Blatter as the most powerful executive in the sport.
Prosecutors had labeled the payment a bribe, saying that it was made around the time Blatter was standing for re-election. Blatter and Platini denied wrongdoing; they have long maintained that the money was owed to Platini for work done over several years.
In a statement after the verdict, the court said that while there were “many well-founded suspicions” before the case was brought to trial, the versions presented by Blatter and Platini of what had occurred created “serious doubts” around the case made by prosecutors.
And in another embarrassing blow for the Swiss authorities, the court ruled that Blatter and Platini were entitled to payment of about $20,000 for what it described as a moral injury. The court said Platini waived the payment, but that both men also would receive payments for their legal costs.
A smiling Blatter was engulfed by news media as he left the courthouse. He raised both arms in the air, reminiscent of a gesture he used frequently during his days as FIFA president, to declare victory.
“I am a happy man,” Blatter said, before thanking the judges. “They have analyzed the situation and they have explained why both of us haven’t done anything.”
The criminal charges of fraud, criminal mismanagement and forgery against Blatter and Platini came after a multiyear investigation into the $2 million payment, which came to light in 2015 after prosecutors at the U.S. Department of Justice revealed corrupt practices at FIFA dating back at least two decades.
The American investigation resulted in the arrest and conviction of dozens of powerful soccer officials and marketing executives on charges that included racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy. Blatter was not among those charged at the time, and while he has for years been the subject of various investigations, the fraud allegations over the payment to Platini marked the first time that he had actually been indicted on criminal charges.
The failure to prove the charges against Blatter and Platini, though, shined yet more light on failures by the Swiss justice system to win convictions in cases related to the FIFA scandal. Swiss authorities had with great fanfare raided FIFA’s offices in 2015, shortly after the Justice Department unsealed its sweeping indictment outlining decades of corruption at soccer’s governing body, and Swiss prosecutors claim to have opened dozens of separate investigations into the organization’s activities.
So far, however, they have successfully prosecuted only one former FIFA official, a banker and a Greek television executive. None of those defendants have faced prison sentences.
The $2 million payment to Platini came as Blatter faced a strong challenge for the FIFA presidency from a Qatari billionaire, Mohamed bin Hammam, who at the time was head of soccer in Asia. Blatter and Platini both said that the money was a belated payment related to work that Platini, the captain of France’s 1984 European Championship-winning team, had done for Blatter after he was elected FIFA president for the first time, in 1998.
During the trial, Blatter told the court that the money was part of a “gentlemen’s agreement” that he had made with Platini, who had agreed to advise him in return for about $1 million a year. The payment of the money would come “later,” Blatter said of their agreement.
“When Mr. Blatter asked me to be his adviser, he asked me what salary I wanted,” Platini later testified. “I was surprised that he asked me this question and I said to him, ‘I want a million.’”
Blatter, 86, and Platini, 67, had faced as much as five years in prison if convicted.
Both men were eventually barred from the game by FIFA’s disciplinary system, though their original bans were later reduced on appeal. Those were to have expired in October, but a new suspension, imposed on Blatter on different grounds, took effect when it ended, meaning that he will be barred from the game until 2028, when he will be 92.
After the verdict, Platini said that justice had been done “after seven years of lies and manipulation.”
He has previously taken aim at the current FIFA management led by his former deputy, Gianni Infantino. Infantino vaulted from a place-holder candidate for FIFA’s presidency to its leader when Platini first faced accusations in 2015 and after Blatter resigned in the wake of the Justice Department investigation and arrests.
Platini suggested that he would continue fighting to clear his name; he filed a criminal complaint against Infantino in April. “In this case, there are culprits who did not appear during this trial,” he said. “Let them count on me, we will meet again. Because I will not give up and I will go all the way in my quest for truth.”
Blatter may be headed back to court, too. He faces the potential of another trial after the Swiss authorities informed him in June 2020 that he had been labeled an “accused person” in case involving the suspected misuse of funds after loaning $1 million to a soccer official in the Caribbean.
That official, Jack Warner, has been fighting extradition to the United States after being named in the Justice Department’s indictment.