Wednesday, December 08, 2010

ATH: Michel Platini

Platini As Player, Coach, And President
By J Hutcherson, US National Team Players Association

One has to wonder which version of Michel Platini decided to comment on the French National Team strike during the 2010 World Cup. Is it the president of UEFA? The former coach? The former player?

Teasing that out goes a long way towards explaining the need to call the member of the France squad that sided with Nicolas Anelka "bloody fools" and calling the strike action "pathetic." He took the next step, telling So Foot magazine that he would've banned all of them for life.

Ok then, we're all clear that Platini has a problem with what happened in South Africa. Why becomes a very good question. After all, we could be talking about the former French international, the former French National Team coach, the current head of UEFA, or some combination. What's interesting is this particular definition of fair play.

It's nothing new for France in particular to have star players disagreeing with their National Team coach. Eric Cantona is the classic example, getting what was advertised as an indefinite ban for insulting his coach in 1988. Guess who was hired to replace that coach and reinstated Cantona? Yep, Platini. So it's a fair assumption that Platini the coach was a bit more forgiving. Platini the player was a genius, full stop. Platini the European soccer bureaucrat has shown a fondness for planning and reevaluating concepts that were taken for granted.

There's a theme in international soccer that Federations represent everybody but the players that wear the shirt on the field. In this view, the players are a problem. In most cases they're not directly employed by the Federations. They might even be represented by a labor union. Their actual employers, the clubs, might have differing views on player management. Into this mix is added the National Team coach, normally a Federation's highest paid employee. It can be a difficult interplay between all parties, especially when there's the added pressure from fans and media questioning a basic setup.

Raymond Domenech had been working in the French coach setup as the Under-21 coach since 1993 before taking over as National Team coach in 2004. He was in charge for the run to the final in 2006, cementing the French Federation's initial choice to give him the job. Still, he faced criticism that only grew louder on the road to the 2010 World Cup. That included a disappointing Euro 2008 and the Ireland handball to get to South Africa.

Fast forward to the actual World Cup, and France was back to their 2002 vintage seemingly unable to pull it together in the group stage. After their 2-0 loss to Mexico, it was Nicolas Anelka's turn to pull a Cantona, with the French Federation once again dealing with a star player letting a coach know what he thought. And once again action was swiftly taken. Anelka was sent home, his teammates responding by not showing up for practice. Cue the FFF responding as expecting, and France fielding a team in their final group game against South Africa.

It's worth remembering how that one ended, with Domenech side-stepping the post-game handshake in his final on-field moments as the coach of the French National Team. For those keeping score at home, the French Federation took action against the player (an 18-game ban for Anelka), the coach (Domenech lost his job), and indirectly the squad (Domenech's replacement didn't call any of them in for the first post-World Cup friendly). What wasn't called into question, at least at the same level, was the bureaucracy. It seldom is.

World soccer has a tendency of downplaying the administrator role and playing up the coach and the players, especially when things don't go as expected. Since technically the soccer bureaucracy represents all involved, it's an interesting choice. Whether or not it was Platini the soccer bureaucrat advocating those lifetime bans, the thinking behind it is in line with what's expected from the politics of soccer. It's also an easier solution than actually working to determine why a situation was ever allowed to get to that point.

Platini has earned a lot of credit from some for his plans. Call them ambitious, since in practice they would change how European club soccer operates. Yet there's still the feeling that the real aim is what it always is with soccer's governing bodies. Control, and only for them.

Regardless of intent, Platini's "ban them all for life" rhetoric is an indicator. Especially for someone who can rightly be considered the second most powerful person in world soccer as the head of the most powerful Confederation. One that represents all of European soccer including the players.

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