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Smiling Blatter enters court as FIFA fraud trial begins

BELLINZONA, Switzerland (AP) — Smiling as he entered court, former FIFA President Sepp Blatter sat alone on a long bench Wednesday as one of his lawyers addressed the three judges on day of the opening of his criminal trial.

Once the most powerful man in the world of football, Blatter is facing FIFA fraud charges in a Swiss criminal court. He is on trial alongside former French great Michel Platini, his former protege who had been seen as Blatter’s successor as president of football’s governing body.

Platini was also in court on Wednesday, seated with an interpreter a row behind Blatter.

Blatter, 86, arrived at the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona full of smiles.

“Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely,” Blatter replied when asked if he was confident about his chances. “I feel optimistic, as always. With the beautiful sun. This is the first day of a trial that will last almost two weeks. If I didn’t have confidence in myself on the first day, it would be bad. I am very confident.

Blatter’s 17-year reign as FIFA president came to an end in June 2015, when he stepped down amid a corruption scandal. A few months later, federal prosecutors in Switzerland revealed their investigation into a $2 million FIFA payment to Platini four years earlier.

Blatter and Platini have long denied wrongdoing and claim to have reached an oral agreement in 1998 for the money. This defense failed first with the judges of the FIFA Ethics Committee, which banned them from football, and later in separate appeals before the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

“Is football on my side? Football is me. I have been at the service of FIFA, international football, for 45 years. And that’s my life, that’s my professional life,” Blatter added. “Now I have to defend myself a bit, but I will defend myself well, with a lawyer and that’s it, because I have a clear conscience.”

The fallout from the case also ended Platini’s campaign to succeed his former mentor and saw him stripped of his role as president of UEFA, European football’s governing body.

The trial is expected to last 11 days and the court will only sit until lunchtime each day due to Blatter’s medical condition. He was in a coma following heart surgery 18 months ago.

The three federal judges hearing the case are due to deliver their verdict on July 8. Blatter and Platini each face up to five years in prison, but suspended sentences are a likely option.

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