PtG Article 19.09.2016

UEFA: New president helps old alliances re-emerge

The election of Aleksander Ceferin as new UEFA President demonstrated a political shift from Western to Eastern Europe, with the help from some of the Nordic countries. But it is still unclear what political agenda the new head of European football wants to pursue or if he is controlled by the agenda of countries.

ATHENS: There were few surprises at the 12th UEFA extraordinary congress outside Athens 14th of September 2016.

The unknown Slovene Aleksander Ceferin won the presidential election by a landslide over the Dutch veteran Michael van Praag by the numbers 42-13. Further, the disgraced and excluded UEFA-president Michel Platini told the delegates that ‘Non, Je ne regrette rien’ to an applauding audience. No surprise.

What is surprising, however, is that UEFA by allowing disgraced Platini to address the extraordinary UEFA congress and to let a rookie take over the lead of the powerhouse of European football puts all the fine words of transparency and reform into limbo. Can we trust UEFA?

The UEFA presidential campaign heated up a little the week before the 55 UEFA federations cast their votes by ballot. Partly due to an article in the Norwegian football magazine Josimar (where I was one of three authors) reporting on the secret lobbying of the Nordic Football Federations in the run-up to the election of Aleksander Ceferin. Michael van Praag had a rant on Twitter about the allegations that Ceferin had offered backroom deals to different countries to secure his presidency.

At the press conference after he won, Aleksander Ceferin tried to assure the journalists that he and his staff had made no pre-election backroom deals to gather support from 42 federations. I guess some of the federations were probably bandwagoning – going for the likely winner – but others had their own motives to support Aleksander Ceferin. Some assurances must have been made and also some promises may have been given to gain 76% of the votes.

Elections are always about balancing between choosing the programme and candidate you like the most and an alliance that can give you some benefits in the future.

When Germany picked Aleksander Ceferin it was both to secure that they did not end on the losing side but also about getting better chances to win the rights to host Euro2024. Gibraltar admitted that they picked Aleksander Ceferin in the last minute because they were – as far as they were told – promised to be given the right to play their home matches in Gibraltar (now they have to play their games in Portugal). And so it goes for most federations.

The Nordic Plot

Before the extraordinary election, the Nordic countries played an extraordinary role. On 3 June 2016, four Nordic countries (Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark) published a press release announcing their support to Aleksander Ceferin. Later, both Norway and Denmark backtracked and said that the press release was meant to encourage him to stand for president and not a statement saying they had already made up their mind.

However, no matter how you read the press release, it makes you wonder what their motives where. In an interview a couple of weeks before the election, the Norwegian FA President, Terje Svendsen, confirmed to me that he needed more time to figure out whom to vote for. The same went for the Danish president when asked by Danish press. Even stranger. In the end they did what they said in the press release: voted for Aleksander Ceferin.

Of the six Nordic Football Federations, Iceland and Faroe Island were always sceptical towards Aleksander Ceferin and the process the four other Nordic federations initiated. They landed on Michael van Praag as eleven other federations did. The two Nordic island federations told me they were not convinced by Ceferin’s experience, his manifesto or his presentations in Copenhagen the week before the election nor by his presentation in Athens.

Different independent sources tell Play the Game that the process to assemble the Nordic countries behind Aleksander Ceferin started at the FIFA congress in Mexico in May 2016 and that Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway had decided to go for Ceferin before the crucial meeting in Milan on 28 May, the same weekend as the Champions League final.

Swedish nostalgia

The president of the Swedish football federation, Karl-Erik Nilsson, was always the strongest supporter of Aleksander Ceferin among the Nordic presidents. He made it clear very early in the race – in fact before the race officially started – why he preferred Aleksander Ceferin who, in his opinion, stood for good governance, youth and transparency. Old clichés. He confirmed this stance at the meeting in Copenhagen when Denmark and Norway said they were still in doubt. Sources close to the Swedish football federation claim that Nilsson longs for the Lennart Johansson-era when Sweden, led by their UEFA President, was one of the most influential football nations in Europe.

Lennart Johansson was UEFA president for 17 years in the period 1990 to 2007. Central to Lennart Johansson were his alliances toward the East. When Communism in Eastern Europe collapsed in 1989 and Soviet Union was dissolved in December 1991, he was quick to set up UEFA's Eastern European Assistance Bureau supporting new football nations in Eastern Europe. This action helped him stay in power for that long a period. It is this alliance, it seems, that the Swedish president Karl-Erik Nilsson wants to re-establish. He wants to bring Sweden back to power in European football.

When Sweden lost the opportunity to host Euro 2020 and Denmark instead was declared one of the 13 hosting nations, it was the ultimate demonstration that Sweden had become a minor player in European football. Why was Denmark so successful? The Danish UEFA Exco member and former FA president Allan Hansen split with his Nordic colleagues in 2007 and went for Michel Platini, the former French football star, who challenged the elderly Lennart Johansson.

This is how UEFA politics work and Karl-Erik Nilsson is fully aware of this. He has ambitions to be the next Nordic Exco member and dreams of bringing back the European Championship to Sweden.

Re-emergence of old alliances

What we saw in Athens was therefore a shift in alliances for some of the Nordic countries, from Western allies as the Netherlands and Michael van Praag to Eastern allies like Slovenia. This shift in alliances may also be traced back to the election campaign for the UEFA Exco in 2015, sources tell Play the Game.

In 2015 the Icelandic FA president Geir Thorsteinsson was a candidate, but suddenly the outgoing Norwegian president Yngve Hallén entered the race. Most likely, the running of two Nordic candidates split the Nordic alliance and destroyed the opportunity for one more Nordic representative in the UEFA Exco. Most likely, the Iceland president received votes from traditional allies in the West and the Norwegian president received support from the eastern part of Europe.

Many observers that Play the Game talked to during the extraordinary congress asked themselves when the Nordic countries turned away from Michael van Praag as they supported him when he ran for FIFA presidency in 2015. Sources, some close to the van Praag campaign, indicate that one or two of the Nordic countries even encouraged van Praag to run for UEFA president this year. If this is the case, van Praag must have felt stabbed in the back by former allies in a campaign turning out to be a campaign to make the Nordic countries greater again.

The Russian connection

Just days after the four Nordic countries published their press release in June 2016, Russia and twelve other countries – after a meeting with Aleksander Ceferin in Moscow – gave their support to the Slovenian. At that time, Aleksander Ceferin had no written manifesto, nor had he publicly announced why he wanted to be president. In fact, he told Slovenian press that it was the encouragement of the Nordic countries that convinced him to run.

When Play the Game asked the Russian sports minister and president of the Russian football federation, Vitaly Mutko, in the congress hall after the election why Russia supported Ceferin at such an early stage, he just said that he was a good candidate and since he was a renowned lawyer from Slovenia he was a man of trust. Mutko protested against claims that politics was involved. After all the scandals involving Russia in recent years it is hard to believe that Russia goes for a candidate just because he is a famous lawyer in Slovenia.

What is certain, though, is that the four Nordic countries made it easier for Russia, Vitaly Mutko and their allies to support Ceferin. Russia just followed in the path of democratic Nordic countries.

Mysterious candidate

Asked about Ceferin, most of the federations voting for him said that it was an advantage to go for a new candidate not tainted by the old system and people. He is young and he is the future of UEFA, Play the Game was told.

But still, he seems like a mystery to many. He fails to answer direct questions about his past, his campaign management and about the challenges he faces as a new UEFA-president. He won’t comment on human rights issues in Russia and he has no strong opinion on what to do to challenge the big nations and their hijacking of the Champions League. He barely even smiles.

What could become a big challenge for the newly elected UEFA president may be that he will have to face personal questions for a long time, which eventually could hamper his intentions to put ‘Football First’.

External campaigning assistance?

Here is an example on issues that can take attention from putting football first. At the hearing in Copenhagen the week before the election, Aleksander Ceferin told at the press conference that he used no external help in his campaign and that he could not afford such external help.

However, various sources close to his campaign say that he has used Stevie Hargitay – son of Peter Hargitay – as an adviser on media issues on different occasions. Stevie Hargitay was also seen in the congress hall in Athens on the Election Day, where also Sheik Salman was present, invited by UEFA. Stevie Hargitay was the campaign manager of Sheik Salman in his controversial FIFA presidential race, in which he lost to Gianni Infantino. Why didn’t Aleksander Ceferin tell us that he used external help when he was asked in Copenhagen? Because he got advises for free? Has he more to hide?

The extraordinary UEFA election has shown us a shift in the balance of power in UEFA. Western federations still have most financial resources, but the numeric power is now moved to Eastern Europe. To keep the federations together – the new UEFA has to give both sides something to keep the boat floating.

Euro 2024 to Germany, accepting the new controversial Champions League structure and more money distributed to the smaller nations can be some of the solutions. And if Sweden is not rewarded for igniting Ceferin’s campaign they may turn sour. What we see is a recipe for increased costs of UEFA.

In his speech to the delegates at the remote luxury resort outside Athens, Michael van Praag used the Rolling Stones song Time is in my side as a metaphor for his age. How long time does Aleksander Ceferin need to convince the outside world that he was the best candidate in this election?

More information

Read Josimar's two articles on Ceferin: