FIFA President Sepp Blatter and UEFA boss Michel Platini, the two most powerful men in world soccer, were banned for eight years on Monday for ethics violations, leaving the world's most popular sport rudderless in a sea of corruption cases.
The pair, who were also fined, had been suspended in October while an investigation was carried out into a 2 million Swiss franc ($2.02 million) payment that soccer's global governing body made to European boss Platini in 2011, with Blatter's approval, for work done 10 years earlier.
The decision means that Blatter's 17 years at the helm of world soccer, already tarnished by controversies over the awarding of several World Cup tournaments and a host of corruption cases against senior soccer officials, will end in disgrace.
It also spells the end of Platini's hopes of replacing the 79-year-old Swiss at a FIFA Congress in February.
Both men immediately denied any wrongdoing and said they would appeal to the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Blatter, who spent four decades at FIFA, came out swinging, holding a news conference to tell reporters that he was sorry only that the president of FIFA was being treated as a "punching ball".
"I will fight for me and I will fight for FIFA," said Blatter, unshaven and with a sticking plaster on his cheek, but defiant.
He said FIFA's Ethics Committee had no right to relieve him of his duties. The committee operates independently of FIFA; its members are appointed by the FIFA Congress and cannot be members of any standing committees.
Its inquiry began after the Swiss attorney general's office opened criminal proceedings against Blatter over the payment to Platini. The office is also investigating FIFA's award of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals to Russia and to Qatar, a small, wealthy desert country with no real soccer tradition.
The Ethics Committee said it had not found evidence that the payment, made at a time when Blatter was seeking re-election, constituted a bribe, which meant the men were spared potential lifetime bans.
However, it said the transaction had lacked transparency and presented a conflict of interest.
Blatter and Platini argued that the payment followed a verbal agreement they made in 1998, and concerned Platini's work for Blatter between 1998 and 2002.
But the committee's Adjudicatory Chamber, headed by German lawyer Hans-Joachim Eckert, found that it had been "without a legal basis" and a breach of regulations governing gifts and other benefits.
It said that, "by failing to place FIFA’s interests first and abstain from doing anything which could be contrary to FIFA’s interests, Mr Blatter violated his fiduciary duty to FIFA".
The chamber concluded that Blatter’s actions ultimately demonstrated "an abusive execution of his position as President of FIFA”.
It also said Platini's argument that there had been a verbal agreement had not been convincing and that he, too, had abused his position as a FIFA vice-president and Executive Committee member. "Mr Platini failed to act with complete credibility and integrity," it said.
Blatter was fined 50,000 Swiss francs and Platini 80,000.
The three-times European footballer of the year, who captained France to victory in the 1984 European Championships and helped organise the 1998 World Cup in his homeland before working for Blatter, called the decision a "pure masquerade".
"It's been rigged to tarnish my name by bodies I know well and who for me are bereft of all credibility or legitimacy," he said in a statement.
Platini said his conscience was clear and that he would ultimately seek damages in civil proceedings. "I will fight this to the end," he said.
UEFA said it was disappointed with the ruling and "supports Michel Platini’s right to a due process and the opportunity to clear his name" while FIFA tersely said it "acknowledges the decision".
Until his suspension, Platini had been the front-runner to succeed Blatter at the top of world soccer. Following Monday's ruling, the British bookmaker William Hill made Bahrain's Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al Khalifa, president of the Asian Football Confederation, the 6-5 favourite, followed by Jordan's Prince Ali al Hussein on 13-8 and UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino, of Switzerland, on 5-2.
In the United States, prosecutors have indicted 27 current or former soccer officials, including eight former FIFA Executive Committee members and the current heads of both the North and South American federations, over allegations that they ran bribery schemes connected to the sale of television rights for soccer competitions. Twelve people and two sports marketing companies have been convicted.