Michel Platini was in combative form when I met him last week in Monaco. He warned Rome will lose the Champions League Final next may if there is any repeat of the violence that has affected Roma’s Champions League matches in recent seasons. He again chided clubs about the dangers of buying success through getting into debt. He even admitted that he cheated as a player, diving on a couple of occasions to win free-kicks.
Platini still charms the pants off most people, including English journalists at our lunch who realised, upon meeting him for the first time, that he is not the anti-English ogre that he is often portrayed by the English media. But the honeymoon period is coming to an end for Platini and he is entering a more challenging time in his presidency.
The biggest advantage that Platini has over all other football politicians, with the obvious exception of Franz Beckenbauer, is his status as a legendary footballer. When he talks about the game, people listen.
Platini’s default position, when asked a difficult question, is to shrug his shoulders and remind people that he is “only a footballer”. The “experts” are the people who know best, he says, the people who will join Platini’s newly-announced investigation into club finances. By experts, Platini means lawyers.
UEFA remains an organisation that lives in fear of another Bosman case. By coincidence, I met Bosman’s lawyer Jean-Marie Dupont at the UEFA Cup draw, which he was attending as a director of Standard Liege (surely the unluckiest team in Europe, having been edged out of the Champions League by Liverpool, only to be drawn against Everton). Dupont claimed that the proudest moment of his legal career was not the Bosman judgment but his representation of Charleroi in the case for compensation of players on international duty.
The Charleroi case ended not in a legal showdown in court, but in a negotiated settlement between UEFA, FIFA and the G-14. But whether Dupont likes it or not, Bosman still casts a long shadow over UEFA. If anyone can shift UEFA away from an organisation that is effectively run by lawyers, it is a football man like Platini. But it is going to be a long and difficult struggle.
In Monaco I attended the Champions League draw and the European Supercup match between Manchester United and Zenit St Petersburg.
The Supercup marks the real start of the European season. With the transfer window due to close on Monday, we can actually start to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of the leading teams.
Although there are three new teams in the Champions League group stages, Anorthosis, CFR Cluj and BATE Borisov, there is a familiar, almost predictable, feel to this year’s competition. The return of Bayern Munich and Juventus reinforces the belief that one of the usual suspects will be triumphant in Rome in May.
The draws threw up some interesting games, but also some all-too familiar ones. Manchester United have played Villarreal and Celtic a number of time in recent seasons, as have Liverpool, Marseille and PSV.
The meeting of Anorthosis, the first Cypriot team to reach the Champions League group stages, with Panathinaikos, should be interesting, as will Fernando Torres‚ return to Atletico Madrid with Liverpool.
Of the groups, H looks to have the most potential for an upset. Though BATE Borisov from Belarus will be lucky to get a single point from their single matches, Zenit St Peterburg should give Juventus and Real Madrid a run for their money.
Overall, this year’s competition looks to have greater depth than last year, when the absence of Bayern and Juve tilted the balance in favour of the English clubs. The Italian challenge is likely to be stronger, even if the priority for Juventus is domestic success. Jose Mourinho has a simple task at Inter: win the Champions League, full stop. The likely return of Mourinho to English shores at some stage in the knockout rounds will be entertaining, at least.
Monaco, with its money and bling, is a fitting place for UEFA to launch the Champions League season. The Supercup is a useful hook on which to hang everything, but the real business is done in the hotel bars and lobbies, from mundane practical discussions about the European games to last-minute transfer deals.
But Monte Carlo is also an unreal place, from the imported sand on the principality’s public beach to the extravagant wealth displayed by the locals, most of whom pay no tax. It’s easy to forget that, outside in the real world, an economic recession is looming. But in the closed world of the Champions League, business is still booming.