Why match-fixing and racism are two of the biggest concerns for Uefa’s surprise new president
Aleksander Ceferin warns that fixing is “killing the game”
Entering rooms at Uefa headquarters, Aleksander Ceferin still finds it startling and unsettling when staff leap from their seats to greet him. The deference of the Michel Platini era is proving hard to shake off for the officials running European football.
“I don’t pretend to be a king here,” Ceferin says at the start of an interview at the Uefa complex by the banks of Lake Geneva.
Whereas Platini was one of the greats of the game, winning titles as captain of France and Juventus before becoming a football politician, most of Ceferin’s professional experience is in criminal law. As a relative novice to football administration, having led the Slovenian federation since only 2011, Ceferin won’t be treated in awe like Platini.
“As a lawyer you learn how to [negotiate], trust me. I have had 15,000 clients in my career,” Ceferin said. “I represent the biggest sports organisation in the world and we have some power.”
The 49-year-old Ceferin emerged from relative obscurity to assume the reigns of the confederation which runs two of football’s biggest competitions – the Champions League and European Championship. Ceferin’s landslide Uefa election win last month was the latest twist in world football, where the established hierarchies were shaken by criminal investigations and ethics cases.
A raid on FIFA headquarters by Swiss police in September 2015 paved the way for Ceferin’s victory. An improper payment of 2 million Swiss francs (HK$15.6 million) from Fifa to Platini in 2011 was uncovered, leading to a four-year ban from football being imposed. Platini was no longer eligible to succeed Sepp Blatter as Fifa president in February, and Uefa general secretary Gianni Infantino unexpectedly stood for election in his place and won.
Although Michael van Praag, as a Uefa vice president and former Fifa candidate, was considered the favorite to replace Platini as head of European football, the Dutchman’s support drained to Ceferin.
“It was now or never,” Ceferin said. “Those terrible things that happened in football, in a way helped my candidacy because people didn’t want to see establishment anymore, the same faces anymore. They really trust in the wind of change. And it’s a responsibility for me.”
But questions about Ceferin’s integrity have overshadowed the opening weeks of his reign. He was forced to defend the scrupulousness of a €4 million loan from Uefa to his federation long before he was a presidential candidate.
“It was as clean as possible,” he said. “I expected some mosquito bites because some of the old guys were very disappointed by me being elected.”
Ceferin’s mandate is overwhelming after being supported by 42 of Uefa’s 55 federations .
“With such big support the disappointment is very big if you don’t do anything,” he said. “I have to use it.”
Uefa’s “Say no to racism ” campaign has been prominent across Europe this week because, for all the fines and stadium closures, discriminatory incidents have not been eradicated from matches.
“The problem was we just punished the association [or club] and collected money,” Ceferin said. “At the same time we have to educate people.”
Ceferin was “surprised” Fifa decided to abolish its anti-racism task force last month, and has concerns that Europe is becoming “simply too dangerous.”
“We are in specific sensitive position in Europe now,” he said. “Europe is not very safe. I’m not speaking just about potential terror attacks but right-wing extremists, all kind of extremists. You have seen that at the Euro in France. So we have to work on it.”
In France in June, Russia was threatened with expulsion from Euro 2016 over fan violence.
“It happened once and it won’t happen again,” Ceferin said, looking ahead to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and St Petersburg hosting Euro 2020 games. “I am almost convinced they will solve that problem.”
Protecting the integrity of matches is a more complex challenge.
“We should fight match fixing more aggressively because we haven’t done enough,” Ceferin said. “Match fixing is killing the game. The early warning system is not enough. We have to connect to police around Europe and to act with them.”
Ceferin inherits the flagship policy of Platini, who was implementing changes to the rules that punish clubs who spend more than they earn, when he was toppled from power.
“Financial Fair Play is in principle working very well but it needs improvement,” Ceferin said. “It’s not ideal. Sustainability should be the main goal. It’s important to try to make the gap between the rich [clubs] and the poor ones closer.”
Coming from a smaller federation, Ceferin hopes he can convince the “big rich clubs with their own interests ... without each other we are all finished.” That is why he will resist any moves by the elite to establish a breakaway Super League, warning: “Without national leagues, football is dead.”
In the courts of Slovenia, the lawyer faced far more formidable figures than the bureaucrats he must now take on in negotiations over World Cup places for European teams, and the future of the Champions League . Despite projecting a no-nonsense and forthright demeanour, Ceferin talks of a collegiate leadership style.
“If you trust people and people believe in you, it’s the strongest leadership,” Ceferin said. “If they are scared then it will not be productive. At the same time we all know who is in charge, but I don’t want to show that in a primitive way: To shout.”
Ceferin is, however, determined to shake up the system. Unspecified term limits for top executives will be imposed, following changes at Fifa where council members can now serve only three four-year terms. Ceferin is hoping for “new blood” on the executive committee and only candidates who are serving in leading positions at their federations.
Four of Uefa’s representatives on the Fifa Council will have to seek re-election in April. The two longest-serving, Michel D’Hooghe of Belgium (29 years) and Senes Erzik of Turkey (21 years) have said they will retire. Marios Lefkaritis of Cyprus, and Russian deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko have held their positions for 10 and eight years respectively.
“When you are there for 15-20 years you become sleepy, and think about your limousines and your suites,” Ceferin said. “The worst thing is at the end you think you own the organisation and you don’t have to answer to anybody.”
Ceferin has less than three years until he has to answer to the Uefa electorate again – if he seeks a second term in 2019.
“I am not afraid,” he says of the challenges ahead.