The last few days have seen the publication/broadcast of two hugely contrasting examples of the football interview. First up was what happened when a leading football figure was interviewed by his (self-styled) fiercest critic. Second came three blokes having a chat on anything but the issues that mattered, about an issue that really mattered. In part two, we hear former Rangers Chief Executive Charles “no-nonsense”  Green belie that nickname with considerable help from Talksport Radio’s Richard Keys and Andy Gray, two masqueraders as broadcast journalists. First, though…

Marin Samuel, Michel Platini & Financial Fair Play

I have written before on how my journalism tutors cited Martin Samuel, the Daily Mail newspaper’s leading sports controversialist columnist, as the best example fine writing in both tabloid and broadsheet style, when he contributed to the Times and the now-defunct News of the World. But when it was announced in 2008 that he was to join the Mail, I thought his bombast, with xenophobic undertones – and occasional overtones – had found its natural home. This seemed clearest in his criticism of France’s involvement in European Football’s financial policies and politics, and Uefa President Michel Platini’s supposed-hatred of the English Premier League (EPL) – a consequence of Platini being French and anti-English rather than his purported love of the game and disaffection with its commercialism.

Samuel denies this, of course, and did so again after his April 19th interview with Platini, which was published verbatim on the Mail’s website on Champions League Final day, referencing “the usual twerps calling me a xenophobe and saying my motivation was dislike of a foreigner meddling in the English game.” So it must have been an entirely different Samuel who, in November 2008, accused the French of “dressing up” proposals for UEFA-wide financial regulation “with cosy phrases about level playing fields, child protection and fair competition” when “the bottom line is that English club football has become the leading light in Europe and the French don’t like it.” This Samuel later referenced the charity Culture Foot Solidaire, which “aids African teenagers illegally trafficked… and then abandoned” as they follow their dream of European football stardom. “It is based, significantly, in Paris,” he noted, “(because) the racket around African football academies benefits the French League more than any in Europe,” as if this was due to French collusion rather than Mediterranean geography.

In March 2009 this Samuel claimed that UEFA’s president was ignoring the ghastly financial plight of La Liga’s Valencia, because he “had another agenda.” He continued: “Don’t you think there is ever so slightly a chance that if Valencia had been a Premier League club Platini would have found a way of working their circumstances into one of his high-minded pronouncements on the state of the game?” As if Platini was about to suggest that proposals to regulate European club football finances should include some sort of “Valencia exemption clause.” And in May 2010, Samuel came as close to accusing Platini of corruption as the Mail’s lawyers could conceivably have allowed, claiming that “this is how it all ties together, French football gets a total government-financed refit just as UEFA is introducing strict financial controls”, in an article entitled Take a Running Jump, Michel Platini… we can see right through your plan. “Dislike of a foreigner meddling in the English game?” No. Not our Martin.

Yet since becoming UEFA President in 2007, Platini has done much to dispel the myth that an ability to play the game with style and grace automatically transfers to that player’s involvement in football management or administration – the “Hoddle syndrome”, some might call it. Many years ago, on a different site, I asked if Platini was too good to be true. Because of the firm support he received from the then, now and seemingly forever Fifa President Sepp Blatter, the answer turned out to be, largely, yes. And while Platini espoused clear financial logic in starting the ball rolling towards Uefa’s “Financial Fair Play” (FFP) regulations, others held a similar view,, with Samuel among many accusing Platini of an anti-EPL agenda (that FFP is now seen as ‘cementing’ the status of club football’s financial elite, very much including the EPL’s leading lights, exposes the muddled thinking of these FFP critics).

Last week’s  interview covered a range of topics. On the more contentious issues, mostly to do with the decision to stage the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Samuel made Platini suitably uncomfortable. And he was certainly right to boast that he asked what Mail readers wanted to ask. On FFP, however, he could only hear what Mail readers wanted to hear, rather than what Platini actually said. Samuel has at least been consistent in his misrepresentation of FFP as being “introduced to check the powers of owners like (Chelsea’s Roman) Abramovich” (Mail, 2 February 2011) and as Platini’s “fabulous plan to cement all the richest, biggest clubs in Europe into the top league positions for the next 200 years, starting from 2012.”

He must have been “only joking” though, because in an early exchange with Platini he claimed that he didn’t “think for one second that your idea was to protect Manchester United or… Barcelona, (just) that the way FFP rules have been set up, that is what is going to happen” (as if such elites weren’t being formed long before FFP). It has long been his bugbear, too, that “owners like Abramovich” not only support FFP but apparently actively lobbied Platini to legislate for it.  “When it started, I would imagine one of the people you were trying to control would be Roman Abramovich at Chelsea,” Samuel suggested to Platini. “So if he is in favour of your regulations, is that not a clue that the regulations are protecting the elite?”

“Platini does not even bother denying this,” Samuel told Mail readers of the accusation that Uefa had “lost sight of the need for competition.” But this was another misrepresentation of both the tone and content of Platini’s response. It wasn’t that Uefa & its president weren’t ‘bothered’ about such issues, just that FFP was introduced to tackle another problem entirely, “protecting clubs” from their own unsustainable ambitions and forcing them “to not spend more money than they receive,” The problem with this interview was that even after Platini corrected Samuel’s misplaced, interpretation of his motives, the Mail man carried on regardless. This was possibly because Samuel wasn’t really listening to the responses – he was still claiming surprise that FFP regulations were not “rigid” and set in stone after Platini had patiently explained three times that they were the “beginning of something, not the end.”

This may, however, also have been a consequence of Platini conducting the interview in his very broken, halting English. The full transcription offered by the Mail’s website exposed just how broken and halting. ‘You had to be there,’ goes the phrase. And some of Platini’s thoughts could only have sounded remotely coherent if you were there. A cousin of mine writes emails as if cogency and punctuation were for others. But comprehension comes from reading them in her voice and intonation. The same, I suspect, could be said of Platini with “I am not in this feeling” (trans: I don’t want to do that), “when you begin by a white book” (start with a blank sheet of paper) or “I totally understand your discussion…but” (I hear what you are saying…but…).

Yet Platini occasionally found the right English phrase to good effect. “Do you think I am responsible for that?” he said with an incredulity which leapt from the page, after Samuel suggested that uncompetitive domestic leagues were Platini’s fault – through FFP and unbalancing Champions League prize-money distribution. Samuel even suggested Olympiakos’s 15 Greek titles in 17 seasons were an FFP by-product, even those won in the 1990s. “It is a little bit more complicated,” Platini noted when encountering the simplistic view of football politics to which Samuel has ‘treated’ his readers down the years. (For instance, Samuel acknowledged that “the powerful clubs are never going to vote to redistribute the (Champions League) money,” seconds before asking why Uefa “could not have been more pro-active on this.” And Platini was clear enough on FFP’s priorities, using the oft-quoted example of the ability or otherwise to buy a Ferrari, to explain his FFP motives. Indeed, he was too clear for some when he referred to “what’s happened with Rangers, they have everything, they have the fans, they have the public but they are pshht and bankrupt.”

If those last five words aren’t already a slogan on a green-tinged t-shirt (the “p”, one imagines, would be silent), someone’s entrepreneurial spirit has gone missing. But they certainly put a few blue noses out of joint, attracting comments that, on balance, I have decided not to quote on grounds of taste. Fair play to Samuel (pardon the pun). When right was on his side, he used that advantage well. He made Platini squirm through a detailed condemnation of former Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene’s appointment as head of Uefa’s financial control panel (“his bank lost £9.73bn”), which Platini ill-advisedly tried to laugh off as the equivalent of missing a penalty. Samuel was also right about Platini himself in one respect. “As always,” he noted, “Platini came across as a man who could identify the big problems but wasn’t so careful around the small details needed to solve them.” Platini admitted that “I am not a big financial expert about the financial fair play. I have a mentality and a morality.” And he added: “Then I give to the financial experts to apply the morality of this financial fair play,” and produce the necessary regulations.

This gave Samuel, well-researched and occasionally with figures to hand, a considerable advantage which he would not have had if he was interviewing, for example, Gianni Infantino, UEFA’s General Secretary and long one of its higher-profile functionaries, who has given numerous detailed FFP briefings. Platini did offer Samuel this opportunity, claiming that “I have not enough vocabulary to speak about…the technical details,” before suggesting that “if you wish, one day, I will send you to meet who is responsible for the FFP, it will be better. I will speak about the moralities, but then you have all the technical details of these problems, they can explain it to you better than me.” That would surely make for a far better interview; better-informed certainly, with less of the points-scoring in which Samuel indulged during his main Mail article about this encounter. It would give Mail-reading football fans a better perspective than they’ve been afforded by Samuel’s anti-Platini, anti-French football instincts. And it would give FFP’s self-styled “fiercest critic” the test he deserves. For those reasons alone, it should happen. For that second reason, I suspect it may not.

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