UEFA’s New President, Aleksander Ceferin, Craves Plenty of Change in His Staid Sport

Aleksander Ceferin of Slovenia, the new president of UEFA, plans moves that might fundamentally alter the landscape of European soccer. Credit Jure Makovec/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

NYON, Switzerland — When Aleksander Ceferin talks about changes, he means the grand, sweeping variety. He means the sort that might begin to repair the “stained” reputation of football’s governing bodies: things like term limits and transparency, the policies that helped elect him president of UEFA by a landslide in September.

He means the kind designed to stop the seemingly inexorable drift of power into the hands of Europe’s elite clubs, the kind that might puncture the lingering threat of a Continentwide superleague: things like setting a “red line” on further alterations to the current format of the Champions League, or demanding that broadcast rights deals on European competitions run for six years rather than three.

He means, too, things that might fundamentally alter the landscape of European soccer, like discussing several proposals for cross-border leagues that are currently under consideration.

In a conference room at UEFA’s headquarters here recently, Ceferin talked with quiet conviction about those changes and more. It was his status, he said, as a “candidate of change” that allowed him to win the presidency.

More than being unafraid of change, though, he said he was compelled toward it. It is his “responsibility,” he said. No more boiler-room politics, no more clandestine deals, no more murky patronage. He is an unknown quantity, and that brings with it a blank slate.

Some had dismissed him as a puppet of the FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, but Ceferin points out that he has “very different views on a lot of things.” Before last year’s vote, the Norwegian magazine Josimar suggested Ceferin was a “Russian candidate,” and yet his first act was to award the 2018 Champions League final to Kiev, Ukraine. “A strange thing for a Russian candidate to do,” he said, smiling.

What UEFA can expect might be best illustrated by possibly the smallest, least noticeable change Ceferin has made in the post, one that will be apparent to only a few dozen people ever, at most.

On April 5, UEFA will hold its 41st annual congress at the Messukeskus Expo and Convention Center in Helsinki. It will, as always, be a five-star few days, 72 hours of glad-handing and backslapping. Some things never change. There will, though, be small — but significant — differences.

“Before, at UEFA events — it was the case during Euro 2016 — the normal federation presidents used to be in one hotel, the ExCo members in a more luxurious one,” Ceferin said, referring to the executive committee. “They had their own exclusive transport; we had a bus. We came to dinner, and there was an area reserved for the ExCo. We had to go.

“People were fed up. They were angry, and they wanted change. I said, first of all, in Helsinki, we will all be in the same hotel. At dinner, it will be free seating. This was a shock for some.”

There is an eerie familiarity to this sentiment, even in this most unlikely of settings: an aloof, “untouchable” elite, its longevity breeding complacency, suddenly overthrown by a surge of dissatisfaction from the teeming masses, albeit masses of no little privilege themselves.

Ceferin was elected UEFA’s president in September by a record margin in a two-candidate election, despite his lack of experience as a soccer administrator. Credit Aris Messinis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ceferin takes a dim view of President Trump’s hard-line stance on immigration, and he is troubled by the slow-motion fragmentation of Europe, but he knows that he has, to some extent, been moved into position by similar tectonic shifts.

“It was an anti-establishment vote,” he said of his election to the presidency. “It is happening all around the world. I met every association, and they all wanted something to change.”

Ceferin, certainly, is not exactly a sports administration stereotype. At 49, he counts as young. In soccer, he is inexperienced, too: A co-owner of a law firm in his native Slovenia, he had not held a major position in soccer before taking over as president of the Slovenian association in 2011.

He is a black belt in karate, vacations in Argentina and has driven across the Sahara six times: five in a car, with his brother-in-law and a couple of friends “in a Lada Niva, a funny Russian jeep, a joke of a car,” and once by motorcycle. “The Sahara is fantastic,” Ceferin said. “But it is too dangerous by bike.”

When he announced his candidacy last year, all of that was held against him. He was too much of an outsider.

“Some of the ExCo have told me, and I appreciate their frankness, that they thought: ‘Let him run. Let him burn. He will get five votes,’” Ceferin said. “They did not realize that things had changed.”

His inexperience turned out to be his most appealing attribute. In September, he beat his rival Michael van Praag, the head of the Dutch association, by 42 votes to 13, a record margin in a two-candidate election, a clear mandate for a fresh start. Not bad, given that, in his words, there were plenty in European soccer who were not sure “which one was Slovenia and which one Slovakia.”

It seems likely they will know the difference soon enough. Growing up a Yugoslav, “not so sensitive to national things,” Ceferin supported the Hajduk Split club, in modern-day Croatia, and his favorite player was Zlatko Vujovic, born in what is now Bosnia. But his perspective now is resolutely Slovenian.

That is not to say he considers himself an Eastern European president. He points to Slovenia’s “geostrategically interesting location,” settled in a nook where different visions of Europe meet. Close to Austria. Western-oriented, but not so much that it doesn’t understand the old socialist mentality. A little bit Italian, too. “We can communicate with everybody,” Ceferin said.

His nationality informs his views on all of the issues he must address in his first two-and-a-half-year term as president and beyond. Most pressing is the future of the Champions League.

Last summer, before Ceferin was elected, the European Clubs Association, the body that looks after the interests of the Continent’s all-powerful club teams, pressed UEFA to redesign the competition in its own interests. The E.C.A. reportedly asked for a reduction to 24 teams from 32, with fewer slots for smaller nations, and raised the idea of wild cards for historically successful clubs that had failed to qualify. The association’s leverage, as always, was that otherwise its clubs could simply walk away and form their own superleague.

Ceferin playing in a FIFA team friendly match at the association’s headquarters in Zurich in January. Credit Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images

In the end, the E.C.A. had to settle for four guaranteed spots each for England, Spain, Italy and Germany, starting next year, meaning 16 of the 32 teams will be from four nations. Though that negotiation predated his election, as a Slovene, Ceferin is adamant that it is enough, for all the big nations contribute.

“The big five countries,” he noted, referring also to France, “bring in 86 percent of the revenue, and only take 60 percent. You have to respect that.

“But we have to develop football everywhere. I told some of our colleagues: Come to the small countries when someone qualifies, and even the grandmothers are jumping for joy. I saw what happened when Maribor qualified in Slovenia; 70 percent of the town watched the games.”

To protect that, Ceferin said, he will draw a “red line” at allowing teams wild-card entries, and another at cutting the number of teams. He sees the idea of a superleague as a “bargaining position,” nothing more.

“The current format and access list will stay,” he said.

It is his nationality, too, that lends him his conviction that cross-border leagues must not be allowed to replace national competitions. Ceferin will consider them, but only as an addition, rather than a replacement, to the infrastructure that already exists.

Anything else, he said, “would mean the end of football in small countries.” If Maribor or Olimpija Ljubljana, Slovenia’s biggest clubs, qualified for a Balkan league, or an Alps and Adriatic league, under two such proposals, it “would mean the end of the Slovenian league.”

That he is willing to speak so openly, though, hints at the other trait that won him such widespread backing: He is not one of the same old faces.

Ceferin does not see himself as a career administrator. It is why he pushed for the introduction of term limits, over the protestations of some of his more tradition-minded colleagues.

“They said: ‘Why have term limits? You can be here for 20 or 30 years,’” he said. “I do not want to stay for 20 years.”

That is what got Ceferin elected, that sense that he represented a changing of the guard, an infusion of relative youth into a fusty, self-congratulatory world. That he was a threat to the establishment.

“They were a kind of gentlemen’s club,” he said. “Some of the members did not let anyone in. I can understand why they see a threat when a guy comes from a so-called small nation, like Slovenia.”

We are back to Slovenia. It is a perspective UEFA officials will have to get used to; a voice they have not heard before, saying things that previously went unsaid. Some are large, some are small, but things are changing. They will see that when they sit down to dinner in Helsinki.

Source: NYTimes