KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTS: Michel Platini and the two Sheikhs supporting his bid for the FIFA presidency have suffered an embarrassing defeat over a World Cup venue dispute.

An emergency meeting between the federations of Palestine and Saudi Arabia and summoned by president Sepp Blatter in Zurich scrapped a order last month by the ‘bureau’ of the world federation’s own World Cup organising committee which is headed by Platini, the French president of UEFA.

Platini’s fellow bureau members for Asian competition issues were Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, the president of the Asian confederation, and Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, the Olympics powerbroker who joined the FIFA executive committee only this past May.

The dispute entangling them erupted after Palestine and Saudi Arabia were both drawn in a five-team second round group in the Asian World Cup qualifying tournament.

Force majeure

Originally they were due to meet in Palestine on April 14 this year and play the return in Saudi Arabia on June 11. However the Saudis, claiming unspecified domestic force majeure asked the PFA for the matches to be switched around.

Thus the original first game was postponed, with the agreement of both Palestine and FIFA. The teams met for the first time on June 11 in Dammam, with the Saudis winning 3-2.

The Saudis – still claiming mysterious force majeure – then demanded that the return be played not in Palestine but at a neutral venue on October 13. As a goodwill gesture, they offered to bear all the staging costs, including the Palestine delegation’s transport and accommodation.

It is thought that force majeure was the the Saudis’ wish to avoid appearing beholden to the Israeli security services for the right to travel by road from Amman in Jordan to Ramallah on the West Bank.

Protest letter

PFA president Jibril Rajoub, angered at a blatant attempt to buy him off, responded by offering to organise a helicopter shuttle from Amman directly into Ramallah – a standard method of flying Arab country diplomats into the West Bank to avoid problems with the Israelis.

The Saudis ignored him, insisted on a neutral venue and were supported by Platini’s World Cup organising bureau, without any formal justification being published. Rajoub fired off an angry protest to both FIFA and to Sheikh Salman, expressing the PFA’s “shock” at a decision of which he was offered no prior warning.

Blatter was furious at a dispute which threatened to undermine his attempt to keep the sporting peace between Palestine and Israel. A Palestine proposal to suspend Israel from world football over access for athletes and sporting goods was dropped at FIFA Congress in May in return for the creation of a monitoring group led by South African businessman Tokyo Sexwale.

Hence the Zurich summit and an order to scrap the venue switch decision. Not that Palestine had it all their own way. The Saudis have been ordered to present a persuasive formal case for a venue switch, something they clearly failed to accomplish so far.

Platini is not only president of UEFA but a vice-president of FIFA. Despite controversy over a FIFA payment four years ago, he remains favourite to succeed Blatter as president of the world federation next February.