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France detains soccer great Platini in 2022 World Cup probe

France detains soccer great Platini in 2022 World Cup probe
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PARIS - French police investigating whether corruption played a role in the stunning decision to award the 2022 World Cup to the desert nation of Qatar took former soccer superstar and top executive Michel Platini into custody Tuesday for questioning.

Platini’s representatives denied any wrongdoing on his part, saying he is “absolutely confident in the future” and has “strictly nothing to reproach himself for.”

Also questioned Tuesday were two one-time associates of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, adding a layer of political intrigue to the investigation of the hugely controversial decision to play soccer’s showcase tournament in a country so scorching hot in June and July that the matches will be held instead in November and December.

As head of European soccer’s governing body UEFA, Platini was the continent’s top representative on the FIFA committee that picked Qatar in 2010.

The closed-door, secret-ballot vote baffled many at the time, not least because the Persian Gulf nation has no soccer pedigree to speak of. But gas-rich Qatar is also pouring billions into the world’s most popular sport and has the means to finance new stadiums.

French authorities did not announce any charges against the soccer legend or say exactly what he was being asked. He can be held for questioning for up to 48 hours, after which he can be either released or formally charged.

The corruption and influence-peddling probe is one of several investigations launched by French prosecutors into an array of winning bids for major sports events, including the 2018 World Cup, awarded to Russia, the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo and track and field world championships.

Platini’s public relations representatives said he was also questioned about the awarding of the 2016 European Championship to France.

“Michel Platini expresses himself serenely and precisely, answering all the questions, including those on the conditions for the awarding of the 2016 Euro, and has provided useful explanations,” they said in a statement.

Platini’s representatives said the former France national team captain was taken into custody only for “technical reasons.” His lawyer, William Bourdon, explained that police wanted to ensure that Platini and other witnesses couldn’t confer with each other about their accounts.

French prosecutors previously questioned former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who oversaw the unusual vote that awarded both the 2022 and 2018 tournaments at the same time.

Also detained Tuesday was Sophie Dion, a former sports adviser in Sarkozy’s administration, the judicial official said. Claude Gueant, former secretary general of the Elysee palace under Sarkozy, was heard as a witness and not detained.

Ahead of the FIFA vote, Sarkozy, France’s president from 2007 to 2012, hosted a meeting in November 2010 that brought Platini together with Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, then the crown prince of Qatar and now its ruling emir. Al-Thani also owns French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain, and Sarkozy frequently attends its games.

Platini has long insisted that the meeting did not influence his vote for Qatar less than two weeks later.

“Sarkozy never asked me to vote for Qatar, but I knew what would be good,” he told the AP in 2015. But in the same interview, he also said that he “might have told” American officials earlier that he was going to vote for the United States’ bid.

Blatter has publicly accused Platini of backing out of a secret “gentleman’s agreement” to award the 2022 tournament to the United States. Blatter also quoted Platini as saying ahead of the vote: “I am no longer in your picture because I have been told by the head of state that we should consider the situation of France.”

FIFA had no comment on Platini’s detention and said it has made a “full commitment to co-operating with the authorities.”

As a player, Platini was one of the best ever, a creative midfielder who lit up the pitch for club and country. He helped France reach the World Cup semifinals in 1982 and 1986 and led his national team to the 1984 European Championship title.

He also played club soccer for Nancy and Saint-Etienne before switching to Italian club Juventus. He won three straight Ballon d’Or titles as the best player in Europe while playing for Juventus from 1983 to 1985.

Both Platini and Blatter were toppled from their positions at the top of soccer in 2015. Platini was banned by FIFA for financial misconduct in connection with a $2 million payment authorized by Blatter — a suspension set to expire in October.
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