ZURICH – Banished from soccer’s ruling body for eight years for unethical conduct, Sepp Blatter won’t give up the presidency of his beloved FIFA without a fight.
“I will fight. I will fight until the end,” Blatter said Monday at a news conference that started 90 minutes after he and former protege Michel Platini were each banned by FIFA’s ethics committee.
It was a stunning removal of world soccer’s most powerful leaders over a $2 million payment by FIFA to Platini, the president of European soccer’s ruling body UEFA. The payment is also the subject of a criminal investigation in Switzerland.
“I’m sad. It can’t go on this way. It’s not possible,” said the 79-year-old Blatter, who has spent more than half his life working for soccer’s scandal-hit governing body. “After 40 years, it can’t happen this way. I’m fighting to restore my rights.”
Already serving a provisional ban, the elected FIFA president and his long-time likely successor were kicked out of the sport just two months before 209 member federations elect a new leader.
Platini, a FIFA vice-president whose bid to succeed Blatter on Feb. 26 now looks over, described the proceedings as a “true mockery.”
Their offences were judged to be conflict of interest and disloyalty to FIFA. They avoided life bans because corruption was not proven.
Platini’s lawyer, Thibaud d’Ales, told The Associated Press it came as no surprise that the corruption charge had been dropped.
“They used it with the sole purpose of dirtying Michel Platini, although they knew from the start it was an untenable argument,” D’Ales said.
Guilty verdicts were expected. So were the subsequent denials of wrongdoing and promises of urgent appeals to FIFA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Blatter’s defiant display was a bonus for international media summoned to FIFA’s former headquarters, just hundreds of meters (yards) from the new building where he spent eight hours with four ethics judges last Thursday.
The choice of venue hinted at a vintage Blatter show. He did not disappoint.
Blatter invoked Nelson Mandela within a minute, pointing to the spot where the iconic South African leader had lifted the World Cup trophy 11 years ago, when his country was chosen as the host nation for the 2010 tournament.
Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, the Nobel organization and the United Nations were also referenced in a spirited 52-minute performance as he held court with more than 100 journalists.
His last words were “I’ll be back, thank you.”
Blatter’s trademark fighting talk was delivered while still sporting a strip of surgical tape on his right cheek after a minor medical procedure five days earlier.
Blatter made it clear he regretted his current position but declared he was innocent of any wrongdoing.
“I am not ashamed,” he said. “I am sorry that I am a punching ball. I am sorry for football. … I am now suspended eight years, suspended eight years. Suspended eight years for what?”
Platini was also dismissive of the ethics commission’s work.
He said its proceedings, which included a hearing earlier this month that he did not attend, had been “orchestrated… by governing bodies that I know well” to tarnish him.
“I’m convinced that my fate was sealed before the Dec. 18 hearing and that this decision is just a pathetic manoeuvr to hide a true will of taking me out of the football world,” the Frenchman said.
“My behaviour has always been faultless and I’m at peace with my own conscience.”
Platini said he will also file a lawsuit in a civil court to seek damages for what he has endured during the ethics commission’s proceedings. In a brief statement, UEFA said it was “extremely disappointed” with the ruling and supported its leader’s right to clear his name.
FIFA’s ethics judges decided that Blatter and Platini had broken ethics rules on conflicts of interest, breach of loyalty and offering or receiving gifts.
Platini took $2 million of FIFA money in 2011 – a payment approved by Blatter as uncontracted salary for work as a presidential adviser from 1999-2002.
In Monday’s verdict, Blatter was fined 50,000 Swiss francs ($50,250) and Platini 80,000 Swiss francs ($80,400).
“Neither in his written statement nor in his personal hearing was Mr. Blatter able to demonstrate another legal basis for this payment,” the judges said. “By failing to place FIFA’s interests first and abstain from doing anything which could be contrary to FIFA’s interests, Mr. Blatter violated his fiduciary duty to FIFA.
“His (Blatter’s) assertion of an oral agreement was determined as not convincing and was rejected by the chamber.”
Blatter hit back at that conclusion during his news conference, portraying the ethics committee as saying of Platini and himself: “He’s a liar and I’m a liar.”
“This is not correct,” Blatter said.
Blatter acknowledged an administrative “error” in failing to register FIFA’s debt to Platini in its accounts for eight years, though he insisted: “This is nothing to do with the ethics regulations.”
The Swiss had started tentatively and the grey bristles on his chin – that clearly showed he hadn’t shaven that morning – added to his aged appearance.
Yet his voice grew stronger, seeming to take heart from gentle prompts and notes given by his only child, daughter Corinne, sitting to his left.
He spoke in four languages and translated his own German, French and Spanish answers into English, clearly relishing the attention of a big audience again.
By the end, with his top shirt button undone and tie loose, it was possible to forget that Blatter had faced a health scare on Nov. 1.
“I am back, I am back, I am doing better,” he said. “I have the support of my daughter, I have the support of Linda (Barras), my love.”
While Blatter wants to leave FIFA with his head high, the 60-year-old Platini wants to clear his name, pass a FIFA integrity check and be declared an official candidate in the election he had been favoured to win.
Platini’s campaign has stalled since he was questioned on Sept. 25 in a Swiss federal investigation of suspected criminal mismanagement at FIFA.
Switzerland’s attorney general has opened criminal proceedings against Blatter for the suspected “disloyal payment” of FIFA money to Platini and selling undervalued World Cup TV rights for the Caribbean.
Platini was paid in February 2011, just before Blatter began campaigning for re-election against Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar. Platini’s UEFA urged its members weeks before the June 2011 election to back Blatter, who was elected unopposed when Bin Hammam was implicated in bribery.
Few FIFA officials knew of the Platini payment which emerged during a wider Swiss probe of the governing body’s business affairs, including suspected money laundering in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding contests.
“I have never cheated with money,” Blatter insisted, before claiming he still wielded authority in the sport. “I am still the president. Even if I am suspended, I am still the president.”
AP Sports Writer Samuel Petrequin contributed from Paris.