UEFA boss Aleksander Čeferin’s fight for the future of football – POLITICO
NYON, Switzerland – For Aleksander Äeferin, having eyes in the back of his head was essential this year in European football.
UEFA president Äeferin found himself in the whirlwind of a tumultuous year for the world’s most popular sport, first pushing back a Super League proposal that some of Europe’s megabucks clubs had missed, then pushing back a ongoing offer from FIFA – the governing body of the world football body – to increase the frequency of the World Cup, which would deal a heavy blow to UEFA.
While the two-year World Cup plan would turn the football calendar upside down, the Super League plot – which is currently under review by the Court of Justice of the European Union – was an existential threat to the governing structure that supported the football on the continent for decades.
And at the center of both disputes was Äeferin, making UEFA the most powerful governing body in football, with allies in key strategic national governments and at the heart of the European Union.
In a lengthy interview at UEFA’s lakeside headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland, Äeferin relaxed in an armchair and discussed a range of political and football issues: the Super League, the World Cup biennial, Belarus, Slovenian democracy.
Lake Geneva shimmered behind him in the cold sun and across the water, Mont Blanc dominates the horizon. To Äeferin’s left in the office was a flipchart with a cartoon of SpongeBob SquarePants, drawn by one of his three daughters.
Äeferin moaned as he recalled the two feverish days in April when the Super League was started by 12 of Europe’s top clubs, then collapsed under a tsunami of fan outrage and political opposition. “I did not sleep, eat or drink for 48 hours, as I had phone calls with governments and royal familiesâ¦ and pressures and threats.”
“The Super League was the worst because it was a personal betrayal from someone I thought was my friend,” he said of Super League instigator Andrea Agnelli of the Juventus, of which the daughter Äeferin is the godfather. At the height of the argument, Äeferin publicly referred to Agnelli and his fellow plotters as “snakes.”
The original iteration of the rebel plot was defeated by a combination of backlash from fans and political pressure from national capitals including Paris and London.
A UK government official involved in appeals with Äeferin at the time of the Super League controversy said the fallout had helped foster a “very warm relationship” between the UK government and UEFA through the “common goal” of defeat the Super League plan.
Super League officials have since accused UEFA of acting as a regulator, dominant operator and sole custodian in European football, a case which is being examined by Europe’s highest court in Luxembourg – where at least 15 countries of the EU have supported UEFA’s position in the legal dispute.
Then, during the summer’s Euro 2020 tournament, which was delayed for a year by the coronavirus pandemic, FIFA blinded UEFA with its proposal to increase the frequency of the World Cup – the first competition. international world football – every four years to every two years.
It’s a plan eferin is scathing at. He called it “populist bullshit”, and said it would harm European football federations and “cannibalize” women’s football.
“The biennial World Cup is a political initiative because FIFA is trying to weaken the European associations, to take money from them and distribute it elsewhere because it is politically attractive,” he said. “The project is an absolute lawlessness for us.”
In a statement, FIFA said the proposal was aimed at “developing football around the world” and responded to criticism from UEFA.
“The sporting imbalance is growing and FIFA has a duty to think about ways to resolve this problem,” said the world governing body. âIt is possible that UEFA is simply concerned that its own business interests will be affected, which will not happen. Once again, UEFA’s stance on the matter appears to be driven primarily by protectionist and selfish instincts. ”
Äeferin, who enjoys chilling out with a drink of Johnnie Walker Blue Label and enjoys British TV drama Peaky Blinders, is infuriated by it all.
âIf I survived this year,â eferin sighed, âI’ll survive a lot more. ”
The aftermath of Belarus
But 2021 was not a year of universal recognition for Äeferin.
It was critical during the Euro 2020 summer competition for UEFA’s refusal to allow the city of Munich to light up its stadium in LGBTQ + colors, in response to a Hungarian anti-gay law. And UEFA also came under fire for awarding the rights to organize a women’s under-19 tournament in Belarus in 2025.
The Belarusian decision hangs over Äeferin and he has hinted at a turnaround, as authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko continues crackdown on the country’s opposition and pushes migrants to the EU border in what Brussels has called a ” hybrid attack “.
While Äeferin stressed that the Belarusian football federation has no links with the Lukashenko regime and tries “relentlessly” to promote women’s football, he acknowledged the “terrible situation” in this pariah country in Europe.
“If democracy is at the level it is today, it would be absolutely impossible” to organize the tournament in Belarus, said Äeferin. âIf this continues, we just can’t go. “
UEFA is monitoring the situation in Belarus and, although it does not have a “concrete deadline” for a decision, the issue will be discussed ahead of next May’s Congress in Vienna.
After Slovenia gained independence from Yugoslavia, Äeferin followed in his father’s footsteps and became a lawyer – where, in an early career role, he defended former Yugoslav soldiers whose pensions were cut by the government – before moving up the football administration ranks.
Äeferin bit his tongue when asked about the current state of Slovenian politics and his nemesis Prime Minister Janez JanÅ¡a – who comes from the same small central Slovenian town of Grosuplje – but offered a broad criticism of Slovenian society.
âIn Slovenia, we have never been so divided. There has never been so much tension. There have never been so many insults on social networks and other media which are clearly the media of a political party, âhe said. “It is worrying but it will have to be resolved by the Slovenes and not by the European Union.”
For now, Äeferin says he has no ambition to get into domestic politics and attack JanÅ¡a on the national stage. “My humble opinion is that I can help the world much more here than from a political post in Slovenia,” he said, confirming that he would seek another term as UEFA president in 2023.
In addition to peace and goodwill for all in European football, especially for himself, Äeferin had one last wish for 2022. “No more fucking COVID.”
Annabelle Dickson in London contributed reporting.