European football is about more than just the big leagues

UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin on fairness, competition, and keeping in touch with reality

The beautiful game has been through some ugly patches in its time. Few can have been uglier, however, than the 2015 corruption scandal and the arrest of seven officials from the world governing body FIFA at the Hotel Baur au Lac in Zürich. Later that year Michel Platini, then President of the European footballing body UEFA, was completely banned from football administration.

Platini was replaced at UEFA and as Vice-President of FIFA in 2016 by the then little-known Aleksander Čeferin, a lawyer and President of the Football Association of Slovenia. During a Distinguished Speaker Seminar at Oxford Saïd on 13 June 2019 Rupert Younger, Director of the Oxford Centre for Corporate Reputation, quizzed Čeferin about what he was doing to restore the reputation of world football.

Drawing a line under the old guard

Electing a relative unknown to be President of UEFA was a measure of the frustration that local football associations felt towards their governing bodies. Most of the executive committee, Čeferin said, ‘hated [him]’: ‘They were laughing when I came out as a candidate … but people were so dissatisfied that it resulted in a landslide.’

What had happened, he felt, was that members of the governing bodies had ‘lost touch with reality.’ This is why his first reforms at UEFA focused on governance, and particularly on establishing term limits – including for the President. ‘I wanted to do governance reforms that affect me too,’ he emphasised. ‘If you limit yourself you can limit the others.’ The reason for these limits is that ‘You get used to this. You know I never wait at the airport? I never pick up my suitcase any more. It’s nice!’

He admitted that his family still provide a regular reality check for him – ‘I go home and nobody’s home. No one picks up my suitcase. I have to take the dog out…’ but he still believed that ‘If you think that you can be forever, then you make mistakes. If you know that it will finish it’s very different.’

The elite clubs and the rest

A perennial complaint about the way football has become such big business is the fact that, while there is a vast amount of money in the game, it feels as if it all goes to the big clubs and the big leagues in men’s football, leaving smaller clubs and leagues, women’s football, and the grassroots out in the cold.

That perception is not quite accurate. Čeferin says: ‘UEFA generates around 5.6 billion euros every year. Out of that we distribute 85% to the local associations for the development of infrastructure, grassroots… So mainly the top end of football brings money to distribute to the other parts that don’t earn so much. We want to distribute more, we do distribute more. We are very interested in women’s football, which used to be viewed as an expense – but it’s not a cost, it’s an investment. And we are close to, if not at, break-even for it.’

The media and public focus on the five big leagues, ‘but you also have smaller leagues that suffer terribly,’ he said. ‘Celtic in Glasgow earns 10% of their budget from TV rights, and an English club earns around 50%. So they need European matches. But … the big leagues are shouting; the big clubs want to take everything… it’s so naïve to think that the big leagues want to help Slovenian teams, for example.’ No wonder he is digging in his heels about not creating a Super League.

Football is essentially about competition after all, and there are 700 competing clubs in Europe alone. You can’t force the big clubs to become smaller, but ‘we do have to find a way to slow this gap that is getting wider and wider and wider.’ EU legislation will not permit a salary cap along the lines of the system in the USA, he said, but there are some more things that can be done.

‘We have clubs in Europe that have 150 to 200 players under contract,’ said Čeferin. ‘What does it mean? If you are richer than the others you buy all the good players and they don’t play, you don’t use them. You just weaken the others.’

In that case, there is a perhaps a simple solution: ‘we can limit the squad.’ But that only works if applied across all teams and all competitions: ‘we have to work together to solve these things.’

The Europa League final

UEFA’s even-handed policy of rotating the location of cup finals came under some fire this year when the two finalists of the Europa League, London-based Arsenal and Chelsea, had to travel to the Azerbaijani capital of Baku. Many fans were unable to attend the match due to ticketing and travel issues, meaning that both clubs failed to sell all of the 6,000 tickets they were allocated.

Čeferin was unrepentant – ‘If somebody asks me why we play in Baku I would say somebody lives there! Homo sapiens lives there’ – and suggested that, ‘If we have two Azerbaijani teams playing in London nobody would complain. They would come and play without any problems.’ This was perhaps a touch disingenuous, as London is considerably more accessible than Baku, and Azerbaijan’s frosty relations with Armenia were not a trivial problem.

However, his comment that ‘You should see the happiness, the humbleness of people when they see live the superstars they like’ is a reminder that the parochial expectation that Chelsea fans live in London or Real Madrid fans live in Madrid has been demolished by the international nature of football broadcasting. The major leagues are watched all over the world. Why indeed should people outside countries such as England, Spain, and Germany not get the chance to see live the clubs and players that they support? Having said that, Čeferin did admit that he was considering limiting Champions League finals to Europe’s biggest stadiums to cope with demand.

Football as a positive agent for change

There is still widespread disquiet about the decision to hold the FIFA World Cup Finals in Qatar in 2022, and issues such as racism continue to challenge leagues and clubs worldwide. Čeferin is in absolutely no doubt about the need for a zero-tolerance approach within the game. ‘Our key word is respect. It means everything – the fight against racism, sexism, homophobia. Respect your opponent. Sport is respect – at least it should be respect.’ However, he wrestles with suggestions that bans and boycotts at the club and country level are the answer. ‘I was surprised when we came to some places with clear conflict, and the conflict stopped – unfortunately just for the duration of our visit,’ he said. ‘But I think we could use football to change some things and not just to boycott and say we don’t go anywhere.’

Saïd Business School

Saïd Business School (University of Oxford) offers excellence in executive education and is able to empower and support organisations and individuals to create opportunities, meet new challenges and drive business impact.

Verity Donovan

Conference Business Development Manager

Leave a Comment