September 27, 2015

ZURICH (AP) Before protege turned protagonist, Michel Platini was inseparable from Sepp Blatter, as if they had a telepathic partnership on a football field.

Long since estranged, their past alliance is now the focus of criminal investigators, and their FIFA fates in the short term are likely to be determined by the organization's ethics committee, which is expected to meet over the coming week.

The question for Blatter is why FIFA paid 2 million Swiss francs (about $2 million) to Platini in 2011 for work supposedly carried out at least nine years earlier. The Swiss attorney general suspects it was a ''disloyal payment'' from FIFA's vast cash reserves, although Blatter denied wrongdoing after being interrogated on Friday as his presidential office was searched.

Platini was officially classified as a witness on Friday, offering documentation to assist investigators while insisting publicly it was for legitimate work.

There has been silence since from UEFA on a mystifying aspect of the payment: Did Platini only bill FIFA for the 1999-2002 work in 2011 or was the payment unexpected after writing off a debt? Later in 2011, Platini backed Blatter for re-election after deciding not to challenge the incumbent.

The timing of the latest investigation could not come at a worse time for Platini, who denies any impropriety. In a month's time the Frenchman, who is also a FIFA vice president, has to pass integrity checks to gain a place on the ballot to succeed Blatter in February.

Tutored in sports politics by Blatter, the once-smooth playmaker for France lent his glamor to the 1998 election campaign that resulted in the Swiss succeeding Joao Havelange.

In return, Platini joined the FIFA payroll. Wherever Blatter traveled, for almost a decade, Platini was likely to be found at his side as his most loyal adviser.

Only when Platini saw his own path to the presidency at FIFA blocked by an immovable Blatter did the friendship sour.

Badly.

Platini, like the rest of world football, was assured by Blatter in 2011 that the presidential office in Zurich would be vacated in May 2015. But Blatter has a thirst for power and couldn't let go. Platini, exasperated, had to settle for a third term running European football in March.

Even the earthquake caused by the criminal indictments of FIFA officials in May, three days before the election, could not force Blatter out - however much Platini tried to beg his former mentor to stand aside.

Yet the vacancy opened up again when Blatter stunned football with his resignation statement at the start of June, paving the way for a February election.

Platini seems so certain about his prospects that he has stayed largely silent in public about his FIFA plans, engaging in no discussion about how he would overhaul the tainted governing body.

Now the campaign appears to be faltering before Platini even presents a manifesto.

Platini's credentials as a reformer were ridiculed by rivals even before he became embroiled in the Blatter scandal on Friday.

And he threw a fresh spotlight Thursday on one of his controversial decisions - voting for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup.

Platini told The Associated Press he ''might have told'' American officials he would vote for the rival United States bid. However, he changed his mind after a November 2010 meeting hosted by Nicolas Sarkozy at the then-French President's official residence in Paris and also attended by senior Qatari officials.

Platini said it was not anything pre-arranged and he has defended the integrity of his vote.

Allegations about Platini's support for Qatar also featured in a smear document that emanated from within FIFA in August. It resulted in a FIFA staffer leaving following a complaint from UEFA.

Then, after documents were revealed by a friend of Platini's relating to World Cup ticket sales, FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke was suspended - while denying misconduct.

In the brief AP interview on Thursday, Platini stated his intention to tone down the politics and shift attention in FIFA back to the game itself.

Platini proffered a similar hope in the past.

''What does FIFA mean to today's players? Nothing!'' Platini said. ''The people they see are figureheads, staying in five-star hotels and eating in expensive restaurants. We want to change that.''

Those comments came just before Platini helped Blatter win the presidential election on the eve of the 1998 World Cup in France which the former player organized.

Seventeen years on, FIFA is still trying to change its image. Now the allies turned antagonists face a similarly uncertain future.

---

Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

You May Like