ATHENS, Greece — Michel Platini reluctantly handed over the reins of power in European soccer to Aleksander Ceferin, a little-known Slovenian lawyer who won the UEFA presidential election by a landslide on Wednesday.
Ceferin will complete Platini’s four-year term through 2019 while the disgraced former France captain returns to his FIFA-imposed exile to continue serving a four-year ban over an improper payment.
Before Ceferin beat UEFA vice president Michael van Praag 42-13 in the secret ballot, Platini was given special dispensation by FIFA’s ethics judge to bid farewell to European soccer leaders. Platini assured UEFA delegates he has a “clear conscience” over the legitimacy of the 2 million Swiss francs ($2 million) he received from FIFA in 2011 that led to his downfall four years later.
After Platini was initially suspended last October by FIFA, a political vacuum opened up in European soccer that was capitalized on by the elite clubs to influence the future of the Champions League. Ceferin’s immediate challenge is to heal the rifts created by the secret deal, which he opposes, to increase guaranteed Champions League places for clubs from the powerful leagues of England, Spain, Germany, and Italy.
“The most important thing is to give that leadership back to UEFA that clearly we have not had since Michel Platini had to step down last year,” UEFA vice president David Gill said.
With only 2 1/2 years until having to renew his mandate, Ceferin will have little time to waste to convince UEFA’s members it was right to entrust someone with only five years of experience around the governing body with its top job.
“Some people may have said that I am not a leader, that I am too young and too inexperienced to become the next UEFA president,” said Ceferin, a father-of three from Ljubljana. “It’s not because you repeat again and again, loud and clear ‘I am a leader’ that you are a leader. If you have to do it you are probably not a leader.”
Ceferin, aged 48, said combining running a law firm in the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia with leading the country’s soccer federation since 2011 required him to be “creative, strong and inspiring.”
“You can say that I am young and experienced but I honestly think it disrespectful for all small and medium-sized federations who, 365 days a year, have to do more with less,” Ceferin said.
Reinhard Grindel, the German federation president, viewed Ceferin’s election as a vote against the UEFA establishment, including Van Praag of the Netherlands.
“This big majority shows that a lot of FAs … have a wish to get a new dynamic in UEFA from outside the executive committee,” Grindel said. “Michael van Praag had seven years the chance to give a lot of reform ideas in his work in the executive committee and he did not.
“So a lot of my colleagues think, focusing on his speech today, that it is a problem to say now ‘Let’s start very new at zero’ after being part of the executive committee for seven years.”
Ceferin is the seventh president in the 62-year history of UEFA, which every four years organizes the European Championship — the wealthiest competition between national teams after the World Cup. He said he speaks five languages, is a black belt in karate, and has crossed the Sahara Desert five times, four by car and once on motorbike.
He will take charge at UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland, after a campaign clouded by accusations that he was being assisted by Gianni Infantino, the organization’s general secretary before being elected FIFA president in February.
Ceferin’s campaign emerged in May, shortly after Infantino traveled to Slovenia to open a national soccer center. Weeks later, FIFA appointed Tomaz Vesel as an independent auditor overseeing its billion-dollar annual income — and Infantino’s salary and bonuses. Vesel is also from Slovenia and plays on a veterans’ soccer team with Ceferin.
Infantino said it was a “pity” critics suggested he influenced the election of one of soccer’s six regional confederations that sit under FIFA.
“This is an insult on the intelligence of all the national associations and those who are voting,” Infantino said after the vote. “You have seen there was a democratic process.”
Infantino was separated on the front row from Platini, whose self-proclaimed destiny he assumed by becoming FIFA president.
Despite being banned from holding any position of power or involvement in soccer, Platini was allowed by FIFA’s ethics judge to address UEFA delegates on Wednesday as a “gesture of humanity.”
“Be assured that I have a clear conscience, that I’m convinced I did not make the slightest mistake, and that I’m continuing the legal battle,” Platini said. “I want to thank everyone in this room who had the courage and loyalty to support me during the past months.”