The institutions that run football have long been suspected of all sorts of misbehaviour: corruption, ineffective leadership, prioritising finance over football. But rarely have its most powerful bodies, UEFA and FIFA, appeared in such a confused mess as they have over the last few weeks. Is it part of the healing process, or has the exposure of scandal only served to create more chaos as those with less than honourable or even illegal histories in the organisation seek to protect their interests and cover their tracks?
The two major problems affecting UEFA and the institutions of Europe converged this week with the election of Aleksander Ceferin, previously President of the Football Association of Slovenia, to President of UEFA itself. The first problem: the corruption that seems to run so deep that it takes a bribe of millions of pounds to be investigated by the Swiss attorney general before an individual is banned for a meagre six years. This is the case of Michel Platini, the former head of UEFA, who up until that point had not really been suspected of wrongdoing (despite the scrutiny of FIFA and UEFA and a number of his close associates appearing to be the villains in question).
It was Platini’s resignation that triggered the presidential election in the first place. The second problem: the friction between the top four leagues and practically every other league in UEFA. It was the concern of smaller federations over the lobbying power of the largest clubs in European football, and the financial influence they had over UEFA, that triggered Ceferin to run for election against the overwhelming favourite, president of the Dutch FA Michael van Praag. And he won with a very credible package of proposed reforms: term limits for presidents, greater transparency in the game, strengthened financial fair play, and considering the interests of all nations rather than just the wealthiest. On the surface, it seems that his election is a progressive move towards greater fairness and justice in football.
But to believe that Ceferin’s election will be automatically transformative is to misunderstand just how entrenched the corruption in UEFA is and, more importantly, to misunderstand the influence of money in football. This isn’t a conquering strategy by those who want fairness and justice in football. It is simply moving troops into position, preparing for the battle ahead. To understand just how difficult a battle this will be, you don’t even have to look further than the very ceremony where Aleksander Ceferin was elected. Before Ceferin was elected president, who was allowed to address the Extraordinary UEFA Congress? Platini, who has apparently been banned from “all football related activities.” And why was he allowed to use the very platform he was supposed to have vacated to protest his innocence? Because of intervention from FIFA, who gave him special dispensation.
This does not in any way seem to be the action of a sorry and humble governing bod, desperate to rid the sport of its worse defects, so much as it seems that Platini’s punishment was the minimum possible in the circumstances of trying to maintain a visage of reform. But it is in the financial problems that Ceferin will have the most trouble ridding from UEFA; the path which will make the most money has rarely been missed by football’s governing bodies, and the involvement of bribery is heavily suspected.
First on Ceferin’s list will be reversing the changes to the Champions League agreed to last week, which vastly favour Europe’s largest clubs. The proposed changes give each of the top four leagues four guaranteed places in the Champions League, and through having two leagues of eight, guarantees each club that makes it through a play-off round 14 games. The changes have been agreed to for purely financial reasons, promising more valuable Champions League games between the top teams at the expense of the rest, who will find it much harder to reach this prized stage.
All this was agreed in principle for 2018-21 while UEFA didn’t have a president. It’s arguable that UEFA was strong-armed by the clubs’ lobbyists, who threatened a breakaway competition, but this also will make far more money for UEFA. Besides, with tensions running high, Ceferin is going to face a real fight from those clubs hoping to reject the changes. And if he wants to strengthen financial fair play for the large clubs at least, he can expect a barrage of court appearances rather than compromises. This may seem all doom and gloom, and in a way it should be. UEFA and FIFA may have previously been full of corruption and financial self-interest, but at least in previous years they were functional and football carried on regardless.
Now it seems every major decision is dragging us closer to a time when an insurmountable rift will be created in the footballing world, tearing those organisations apart. But the election of Ceferin is at least a step in the right direction, even if it is a smaller step than it appears on the surface. Maybe one day we will have footballing institutions that fans feel represent our interests and fairness and justice. But for that to happen any time in the near future, those without a financial interest in the contemporary circumstances must step forward and that means we will be needing many more Slovenian lawyers.