Sepp Blatter, the former president of FIFA, and his one-time 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, 82, and Platini, 67, denied wrongdoing; They have long maintained that the money was owed to Platini for work done over several years.
The criminal charges of fraud, criminal mismanagement and forgery against the two men came after a multiyear investigation into the payment, which came to light in 2015 after prosecutors at the US 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 been the subject of various investigations for years, the fraud allegations over the payment to Platini marked the first time that he had actually been indicted on criminal charges.
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 “gentleman’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 and Platini had faced as much as five years in prison if convicted.
Both men were eventually barred from the game by FIFA’s disciplinary system, although 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.”