Football: Serbia risking expulsion from big tournaments, says UEFA chief

 Serbia's Aleksandar Kolarov in action against Georgia's Valerian Gvilia.
Serbia's Aleksandar Kolarov in action against Georgia's Valerian Gvilia. PHOTO: REUTERS

BELGRADE (REUTERS) - Serbia and other countries rife with hooliganism risk being kicked out of international tournaments if their governments fail to stamp out violence at soccer grounds, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin said on Friday (March 31).

The 49-year old Slovenian, who was elected chief of European soccer's governing body in September, said offenders must be banned from entering grounds.

"If they are not stopped, a disaster could happen and Serbia would be in serious danger of getting expelled from a competition. That would be a disaster for Serbia," Ceferin told a news conference at the Serbian FA's headquarters.

He said strong measures must be taken. "Education is helpful but repression is required too," he said. "UEFA has made it clear to governments in countries where this problem persists that Football Associations alone cannot solve it.

"The state authorities must act in collusion with football bodies to vanquish hooliganism." Serbia's 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign has so far been incident-free but like neighbouring Croatia, the country has been plagued with violence and incidents of racism since the former Yugoslavia's bloody break-up in the 1990s.

Several nations from the region could qualify for the 2018 tournament in Russia, with Serbia and Croatia topping their qualifying groups while Bosnia and Slovenia have a realistic chance of reaching the playoffs at least.

Describing the 2026 event, the first to feature 48 teams, as a potentially exciting tournament, Ceferin backed the expansion from the present 32-team format as a necessity to involve more fringe nations.

He was also upbeat about the allocation of slots, envisaging 16 teams from Europe, an increase of three from the present 13 although it represents a percentage decline.

"All confederations supported the motion to expand the World Cup to 48 teams and that being the case, it was in UEFA's best interest to go along rather than to create dissent," Ceferin said. "UEFA will still be represented by easily the largest number of nations and is the only confederation that will have a team in each group at the 2026 World Cup finals.

"I think it will be a very interesting tournament. We keep saying that Europe is the hotbed of world football's quality and if that is true, all 16 teams from Europe should qualify for the knockout stage. "The new format also offers a great opportunity to teams outside the top echelons to qualify and play on the big stage."

Under the proposal made by the FIFA Bureau for the enlarged tournament, Europe would get 16 places, Africa nine, Asia eight, South America six, CONCACAF six and Oceania one.

The host nation, which has not yet been decided, will qualify automatically and its slot would be taken from the allocation of its confederation.

The two remaining places will be decided by a six-team playoff tournament which would take place in the World Cup host nation.

Ceferin stressed that UEFA's decision to grant four automatic Champions League berths to each of the top five leagues starting with the 2018-19 season stemmed from their financial contribution to Europe's elite club competition.

He also reiterated that the body was strongly opposed to a breakaway European Superleague. "The Champions League format has changed in favour of the top five nations but we must also keep in mind that they yield 86 per cent of all the revenues and take back 60 per cent.

"When I was elected, I said a European Superleague was out of the question as it would mean a war with UEFA. It's every club's dream to play in the Champions League and hence any breakaway competition is unacceptable."