Football: Uefa elects surprise leader

Aleksander Ceferin (centre) reacts after he was elected as the new UEFA President at 12th Extraordinary UEFA Congress in Athens on Sept 14, 2016.
Aleksander Ceferin (centre) reacts after he was elected as the new UEFA President at 12th Extraordinary UEFA Congress in Athens on Sept 14, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

ATHENS (AFP) – Uefa overwhelmingly elected surprise candidate Aleksander Ceferin of Slovenia as its new president on Wednesday and he vowed to review a deal over Champions League places for major clubs.

The 48-year-old lawyer, who has only headed the Slovenian federation since 2011 and was little known in international sport until he emerged as a Uefa candidate in June, beat Dutch football chief Michael van Praag by 42 votes to 13 at a special congress of the 55-member European body.

“The wind of change is blowing through European football. It is the end of one era and the start of a new one,” said Ceferin who will replace Michel Platini after the Frenchman was suspended from the game over a suspect US$2 million (S$2.7 million) payment.

Ceferin had the overt backing of Germany, France, Italy and Russia while smaller nations flocked to his cause as he spoke of the need to stop the wealth gap widening between rich and poor football nations.

Ceferin said his top priority would be to head off a dispute over a new deal announced by the Uefa executive last month guaranteeing England, Spain, Germany and Italy four places each in the Champions League group stages from 2018. Smaller nations, who will lose out, are angry at the accord.

Uefa is a very good and very strong organisation. It was without leadership for sometime and I think that in a way was a problem dealing with those things,” Ceferin said.

“We should show that we are the ones who are the governing body,” he added.

“At the same time, we have to speak, we have to have dialogue with the clubs and I think the situation can be solved.”

He said football faces many problems ranging from match-fixing and doping to racism. But he told the Congress: “I am not here to emphasise the negativities that surround us. I don’t want to live in an empire of fear where every day we wake and see another negativity surfacing.”

Ceferin said Uefa’s members wanted a return to calm after the storm that surrounded Platini but that the body has to be a leader in good governance and transparency.

“We should stop with politics, plots, intrigues, lack of transparency, self interest, it is football first. It is what I promise to all of you today.”

On top of the absence of Platini since October, Uefa has also faced disquiet over changes to the Champions League and speculation that major clubs could break away to form their own tournament.

Van Praag had called for a new look at the extra places offered to the major football nations. Ceferin did not say that he outright opposed the measure however.

“Whether I want it or not, I will have to deal with it and that will be the first thing to deal with,” the new president said.

According to English Football Association chief executive Martin Glenn whether the plan goes ahead will be “the first big decision" facing Ceferin.

At the start of the Congress, Platini was given respectful applause for a farewell speech in which he said he felt no guilt about the payment which destroyed his career as a sports leader.

“Just simply know that my conscience is clear, that I am certain that I committed not the slightest fault and that I am continuing to fight legally,” the 62-year-old said.

Platini and former Fifa leader Sepp Blatter are both under criminal investigation by Swiss prosecutors over the payment that Blatter authorised in 2011 for work carried out a decade earlier without a contract.

Platini was elected to a third five-year-term in March last year and seemed set to take over FIFA from Blatter but was suspended in October over the payment and never returned to his office. He officially resigned in May.

Platini thanked those who had supported his efforts to make a return.

“I would also stress that I bear no grudges against those who have not supported me, everyone has the right to their own convictions.”

Platini was originally suspended for six years and though his appeals to Fifa and the Court of Arbitration for Sport have failed, the ban has been cut to four years.