ATHENS, Greece — UEFA and its top clubs have enraged the rest of the continent with an unacceptable, secret deal to guarantee more Champions League spots for the elite, according to the favorite to lead European football from Wednesday.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, UEFA presidential candidate Aleksander Ceferin expressed his frustration that the governing body caved into the demands of Spain, Germany, England, and Italy to allow them to seize 16 of the 32 Champions League group-stage places.
Ceferin viewed threats that leading clubs could break away to form a closed completion as a bluff, warning that a Super League for the elite and rich is “out of the question,” and would create a “war with UEFA.”
Ceferin is challenging Michael van Praag of the Netherlands for the UEFA presidency in Wednesday’s election. Although lacking experience in international football politics, the 48-year-old Slovenian federation head has swept up endorsements to complete the remaining three years of banned president Michel Platini’s term. Ceferin said he has the public backing of 32 of UEFA’s 55 members, while his Dutch rival has four so far.
The winner of the vote in Athens will have to seek re-election before UEFA’s next major event, the 2020 European Championship, which Ceferin said should never have been spread across the continent for the first time.
Declaring himself as being “not part of the football establishment,” Ceferin is hoping his forthright approach can help him win over fans, whose trust in the sport’s leaders has plummeted after years of scandals at FIFA.
Coming from an eastern European country of 2 million, the lawyer said he will have the interests of the whole continent at heart rather than just the powerful and wealthy.
Ceferin is concerned lower-ranked leagues like Slovenia will suffer as a result of Spain, Germany, England, and Italy being guaranteed four Champions League places each from 2018-21, rather than 11 currently between them, following the deal in August.
A document by the influential European Club Association, obtained by the AP, said “UEFA accelerated the process” in part to “avoid interference with UEFA presidential election process (do not allow the topic to be subject of political capture).”
“The problem is we didn’t know anything that was going on — that shouldn’t happen again,” Ceferin said. “It’s not frustrating just for me; it’s frustrating for all 55 national associations … there was a group who decided, and the lack of communication is the main problem why clubs and national associations are mad now.”
The current qualification system, which makes one of the teams from the English Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, and Serie A contest a playoff to reach the Champions League group stage, is the “ideal model,” Ceferin said.
“(The Super League threat) is a bargaining chip,” Ceferin said. “I am sure they do not want to leave UEFA and UEFA’s competitions. It would be boring to play in some closed league and it will mean war with UEFA. They pushed it more because we didn’t have any leadership and that was a problem with UEFA.”
As delegates arrived in Athens for the vote, Van Praag — a UEFA vice president — also spoke out against the Champions League deal after missing the executive committee meeting that backed it last month.
“If I would be elected I would reopen the negotiations,” Van Praag said.
The former Ajax president said he went to ECA chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge to “talk some sense in him” and insisted: “There will be a Super League over my dead body.”
Here are other issues discussed by Ceferin in his AP interview:
The European Championship has been staged only in one country or co-hosted by neighbors, but Platini decided to take the tournament across the continent to 13 cities for the first time in 2020.
“It’s quite a risk for us. It will be a problem for fans to travel from one part of Europe to another. So I would prefer that it changes after 2020 because it’s a bit risky.”
“UEFA is not very broken — public opinion is worse than actually UEFA is. We have to work on transparency. We have to adopt term limits for presidents and ExCo (executive committee) members because you cannot stay in a certain position for 20 years. We have seen in the recent past what is happening if you are there for too long. You think you own the organization.”
“I am a new person, not part of the old establishment. I have new ideas. I am transparent. I have a good life at home. I have a very big law firm so I don’t need it (the presidency) for my CV or to get something for me personally. We need a new wind also in European football.”
Asked if he will leave his law firm, Ceferin said: “It’s a bit hard to say but I’m afraid the majority of the time I will need to be in Nyon (at UEFA’s Swiss HQ).”
Ceferin dismissed claims that advisers for FIFA President Gianni Infantino, UEFA’s former general secretary, are lobbying to assist the campaign.
“One day I’m Infantino’s puppet, next day I’m Platini’s puppet, third day I’m (a) Russian puppet, then I’m (an) Italian puppet. It’s obviously a problem for people to understand you can be independent … some people are nervous because I get so much support.”
“We didn’t do much about it. We are years in front of the USA concerning men’s football but concerning women’s football we are at least equal if not worse, so we have to work on that.”