Anything Fifa can do, Uefa can do almost as shamelessly. Including, it seems, presidential elections. Uefa elect their replacement for the banned/disgraced/French Michel Platini in Athens on Wednesday. Ex-Uefa secretary-general Gianni Infantino might have been a candidate to replace Platini had he not already replaced Blatter. As it is, Infantino, whose nascent Fifa presidency has teetered towards controversy, has been accused of improper interference in the election.
As I type, the election favourite is Infantino’s alleged favourite Aleksander Ceferin, a low-profile international football political figure when the election timetable was announced on May 18th, not least because even now Ceferin lacks that necessity for modern public existence, a Wikipedia profile. Elected Slovenian FA president in 2011 and re-elected in February 2015, Ceferin is a 48-year-old lawyer whose previous club football experience was limited, according to his profile on Uefa’s own website, to membership “of the executive committee of amateur side FC Ljubljana Lawyers since 2005” and ordinary membership “at NK Olimpija Ljubljana from 2006-11.”
Prior to his Slovenian presidency, Ceferin was a criminal lawyer in the family firm, having graduated from Ljubljana University’s law faculty. And his Uefa profile dates his “first formal interest in local football” as recently as “2005 through his work with the executive board of KMN Svea Lesna Litija, one of Slovenia’s most successful futsal clubs.” His inexperience has inevitably been attacked, although it puts genuine distance between him and the “old guard” of scandal-tarnished Uefa executives. It also raised questions over his eligibility to even stand for the Slovenian FA presidency. Slovenian FA presidential candidates required at least five years’ service as a club board member. Ceferin’s was only on NK Olimpija’s board for six months. But because of his “consultancy” work at Olimpija from 2006, he was deemed eligible by Ljubljana University’s law faculty. Handy, that.
Angel Villa Llona faced far bigger eligibility issues. The Basque ex-Spanish international and Athletic Bilbao player has been a Uefa vice-president since 1992, a Fifa veep since 2002 and, as senior Uefa veep, acting president in the banned Platini’s stead. He is a very “old school” senior football executive, if not, yet, in the same “class” as fellow Fifa veeps such as the repugnant Jack Warner. Last November he was fined 25,000 Swiss Francs by Fifa’s busy Ethics Committee for non-cooperation with US attorney Michael Garcia’s investigation into the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding processes (Villa Llona led the failed Spain/Portugal 2018 bid). And he faces domestic court action, “the timing of which,” Paul Nicholson of the Inside World Football (IWF) website noted, with impressive understatement, “will help neither his ambitions nor his reputation.” Especially as he is due to testify in Spain on September 15th, the day after the election.
Thankfully, questions over Villa Llona are now hypothetical, as he exited the race last week, nominally because “there have been many representatives of Spanish football who have asked me to continue working for my country’s football by submitting a new bid for my re-election as president of RFEF.” Some have wondered if these were the same voices-in-his-head Villa Llona heard when he joined the race “because the majority of the European federations have asked me to.”
Others have had difficulties keeping a straight face at all this; the same difficulties presented by his manifesto pledges to apply “best practices of good governance, transparency and democratic participation.” As Brian Homewood from the Reuters news agency tweeted: “No sniggering at the back. Villa promises democracy and transparency.” Villa Llona only formally announced his candidacy at the last minute, after two months of speculation and assumption over his intentions. And now that he’s withdrawn so late, the search is on for the “real” story behind his bid. But whatever the truth, Villa Llona as Uefa president is a bullet dodged.
The election is therefore the two-horse race it was for much of the two months and two days between timetable announcement and nominations closing. Dutch FA (KNVB) president Michael Van Praag replied to Uefa’s request for nominations almost before the question was finished. And the least suspicion appears to lie around him. He has the “best” club football record, mostly because he has one at all, presiding over Ajax’s 1995 Champions League victory and runners-up spot in 1996. And Michael has been KNVB president since 2008, his current three-year term ending in December. Doubts about his candidacy have centred on his “charisma of a lonely cactus” (James Dostoyevsky, IWF, 24 May) and his abortive Fifa presidential bid last year (“the wannabee who already failed once” – Dostoyevsky). He announced his Fifa bid in January 2015 with the perhaps unfortunate words: “I had hoped that a credible opponent [to Blatter] would emerge but that’s simply not happened…so I am announcing my candidacy.”
Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein was already standing. But if he didn’t think the prince a “credible opponent”, he changed his tune in May, withdrawing a week before the election (Villa Llona-style), to united opposition to Blatter behind Prince Ali, “the one candidate who has the biggest chance to challenge” him. Van Praag seems keener this time. With Villa Llona gone, the battle is between representatives of Uefa’s smaller nations, (Ceferin) and established ones (Van Praag). A microcosm of this is the English FA’s support for Van Praag, alongside the Republic of Ireland’s backing for Ceferin.
David Gill is an English FA Vice-Chairman, a Uefa Executive Committee(ExCo) member and seemingly the lone good-guy in Infantino’s Fifa. He labelled Van Praag “someone we have come to know very well and worked closely with.” John Delaney is the FAI’s chief executive and claimed to “have seen first-hand the great work that Aleksander has done for football.” Suggesting that one of these similar endorsements carries more weight would be grossly unfair…on Delaney. Although that snide aside might over-estimate the esteem in which England is held in Uefa. But they demonstrate that being from a “smaller” Uefa nation carries considerable weight. Ceferin’s Uefa work is limited to his legal committee “second vice-chairmanship.” And Delaney has no Uefa role. So what “great work” he saw “first-hand” isn’t clear. Indeed, the main suspicion of this electoral process, besides Villa Llona’s credibility-free passing of Uefa’s eligibility check, is how/where/why Ceferin garnered so much support so soon.
Comparing manifestos doesn’t help. Ceferin’s Creating the Perfect Balance commits to ensuring “UEFA competitions never become closed…clubs from every association should have the opportunity to play.” He told the BBC’s Richard Conway: “Some kind of closed super league, with just a few clubs in, without the possibility for others to enter, is out of the question and will mean a kind of war between Uefa and the clubs.” He advocates “term limits for the functions” of presidents and Exco members, without specifying said limits. And only “representatives active in their respective national associations” can be ExCo members. Otherwise the manifesto is a wish-list of intentions to which opposition is electoral suicide.
Likewise Van Praag’s Building Bridges. One sub-paragraph “Countering the threat of clubs setting up a ‘Super League’” declares: “An optimum financial situation needs to be achieved (which) must benefit all clubs, not just a happy few. Threats of a ‘breakaway league’ must not be repeated, ever.” He wants to serve until March 2019, the end of Platini’s aborted term, before ceding to “a reconnected, new Uefa…under innovative and fresh young leadership.” You could imagine Ceferin as his “fresh young” leader, having told IWF last week: “I respect Alexandre enormously.” However, relations have soured considerably since, because of the suspicions surrounding Ceferin’s transformation to such favouritism that Keir Radnedge wrote in World Soccer on Wednesday of “the prospect of Ceferin being acclaimed as new UEFA president without need of a vote.”
In May, Infantino’s reported “favourite” candidate was “Portuguese football apparatchik” Fernando Gomes, “linked to superagent Jorge Mendes. Nothing came of this. Instead, Ceferin emerged with support from 17 of the smaller European associations. Given Ceferin’s subsequent championing of “small” nations, this wasn’t over-surprising. And large nations Germany and France have since backed him. But the early support arrived before anything about the opposition could be known. The week before Ceferin even declared his candidacy, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish football chiefs declared in a press release: “We have the same interest in implementing reforms” as Ceferin “and have a common view about good governance of European football.”
However, on July 20th, Dutch newspaper de Volksrant claimed Infantino “sent an ‘advisor’ to a meeting of northern European football associations in Milan” before the May 28th Champions League final, recommending “Ceferin should become the next president of UEFA.” This breached Fifa’s Ethics Code which requires political neutrality from Fifa employees.
The “advisor” was controversial Norwegian FA secretary-general Kjetil Siem, who was announced as Infantino’s “director of strategic affairs” on May 18th, ten days before the meeting. Fifa said Siem “was not sent on behalf of the FIFA President…at the time of the meeting, he was still an employee of the Norwegian FA.” And Van Praag accepted Infantino’s version of events, telling de Volksrant that “(Infantino) was angry (at) this story and…could never afford something like this (as) Fifa president.” Tickety-boo, then. Until Norwegian football magazine Josimar this week published an “investigation,” The president’s Man, which extensively detailed the Milan meeting and strongly backed de Volksrant’s report.
The report, co-authored by respected journalist Pal Odegard (who on May 28th published the seminal, deserved Villa Llona hatchet job), claimed Siem “actively worked to gather votes for Ceferin” and that in return Sweden were “promised a seat on the UEFA board and the position as UEFA vice-president” and the Nordic countries “promised to be named hosts of Euro 2024 or 2028.” “The Nordic press release makes for peculiar reading,” it added. “It states that the four associations had met with Čeferin several times. Though, the deadline…to sign up as candidates wasn’t until 20 July and at the time…no other candidates had come forward. Why were they in such a hurry to support an unknown candidate…who hadn’t even presented any kind of manifesto?” Siem said: “It was a meeting between Čeferin and the presidents. I was invited to inform them about leaving the NFF. With Čeferin present, I said I personally believe him to be a leader UEFA needs. I also said I only spoke on behalf of myself.”
Others thought “Siem did represent Infantino” and found it “unthinkable that his message would not be in harmony with the opinions of his future boss.” Josimar also had sources “who say Siem actively lobbied for…Čeferin at the Uefa Congress in Budapest on 3/4 May.” Faroese and Icelandic delegates refused to sign the release, claiming it was “premature to publicly support one candidate before we knew who the candidates were” and that “Čeferin had not presented any platform to rally behind.” While, Norway’s actual delegate, Terje Svendsen said it “was not a declaration for support for Čeferin, but a means to get an independent candidate to run.”
Van Praag tweeted his “shock” at the story: “If it is true, we are back to the old-school way of doing business in the football world…exactly what I want to change. We need an honest football leader. No power-hungry politician.” Ceferin called the story “almost completely not true” and, perhaps unwisely, accused Van Praag of using “the methods of the old school, making up stories trying to pollute the pre-election time.” It is quite believable that Ceferin is Infantino’s preferred choice, that Siem was doing exactly as accused in Milan and…that it will work, especially as lining Van Praag to the “old school” will likely resonate. “People are fed up with the (UEFA) Exco and its favouritism and its exclusivity like a club not connected to its members,” Ceferin told IWF’s Paul Nicholson, correctly. But Van Praag said he’s been on that committee “for seven years and I have seen things slide away,” to which his solution is, amongst other things “continuity” and “stability.”
So Van Praag’s own words may condemn him more than anything Infantino has or hasn’t done.
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