The profoundly shocking way Uefa mishandled its Champions League final on 28 May has prompted alarming questions about the organisation and its president Aleksander Ceferin and, by natural extension, the whole edifice governing modern football.
Uefa may still be that great institution, formed in 1954 to organise the European Cup and still 68 years on, thanks to last year’s defeat of the Super League breakaway, organisers of the glittering Champions League.
The reality, though, is that Uefa is a member organisation; the confederation, to use football’s jargon, of Europe’s 55 national associations, including the English FA. Yet the politics of football’s ostensibly democratic pyramid have long been dysfunctional and questions about their fitness for purpose are generally explored only when a crisis makes them suddenly more urgent.
Uefa’s conduct at the Stade de France remains staggering, but the English FA has said nothing at all about it in public. On the night, feeling under pressure to explain the kick-off delay to a watching world, Uefa’s response was to blame Liverpool supporters, who had been put through hours of dangerous disorganisation and chaos and had more to face on the way back.
Just weeks before that, Ceferin had been still full of praise for English fans and, with Liverpool’s supporters prominent leaders, their campaign to fight the Super League, which preserved the immensely lucrative Champions League for Uefa. “When we were at war with the Super League, we were helped by English fans. Italians and Spaniards have done nothing,” Ceferin said, perhaps indelicately, on 2 May.
But then when the first Champions League final with a crowd was held since English fans saved Uefa’s billions and Ceferin’s world, Uefa took no responsibility for the near-disaster. Instead it issued two globally broadcast statements, oblivious to the 33-year Hillsborough trauma, content to depict Liverpool supporters as late-arriving mass ticket fraudsters.
The questions that naturally followed have included criticisms of the Uefa culture under Ceferin, the surprise reform candidate from Slovenia anointed in the 2016 vacuum after Michel Platini and Sepp Blatter, presidents of Uefa and Fifa respectively, were banned amid financial scandal.
It has seemed very significant that Ceferin’s best friend, Zeljko Pavlica, was appointed Uefa’s head of safety and security last year as “natural successor” to the previous head, Kenny Scott. Some critics have also expressed concerns about more general cronyism and a culture of personal alliances at Uefa at a still critical time for football governance. The big clubs’ gigantic commercial power means that the battle for some rebalancing, and for the traditional value of the confederation structure, was far from won despite that injury-time defeat of the Super League.
England’s FA is a major, historic member of Uefa, among the wealthiest, certainly compared with the countries of eastern Europe and the Balkans which now add up to a large number of votes in a presidential election. Yet although thousands of English supporters were put in danger in Paris having paid fortunes to Uefa for tickets, and then been blamed by those infamous statements, the English FA has not seen it as part of its role to speak out in solidarity or concern.
Its main representative at Uefa, the former Manchester United chief executive David Gill, is an influential figure these days, a vice-president on the executive committee, the equivalent of the board. That part-time role entitled Gill to €250,000 (£216,000) last year; he is also chairman of the finance and remuneration committees, and Uefa’s treasurer. The Observer asked the FA and Uefa how much Gill is paid for these other roles, but neither was forthcoming with that detail. Gill’s remuneration committee approves Ceferin’s salary, awarding the president 2.56m Swiss francs (£2.3m) last year, up from 2.42m (£2.17m) in 2019-20.
This newspaper also asked the FA about its silence since the Stade de France debacle and whether it tries to play a reforming role at Uefa. It declined to comment. Sources indicated that the FA did make supportive contact with Liverpool after the final, and was vocal privately at Uefa about the need to have the “independent review” that is taking place.
But speaking only privately feels like just another dimension of the problem. Joseph Weiler, the New York university law professor who resigned from Fifa’s governance committee in 2017 after the abrupt removal of its chairman, Miguel Maduro, said of the confederations: “Football’s democratic governance model is flawed, because although there is one vote per national FA, after an election there is no opposition holding those in power to account. All the FAs have to be part of the ruling regime, and internal debate and scrutiny is weak.”
The perception too is that the FAs are mainly focused on winning favour at the confederation, which has the power to award hosting of its prestigious tournaments. The English FA is seeking Uefa’s approval to host the 2028 men’s Euros and the scale of national kudos a tournament promises, resounding for decades, suppresses a healthier culture in which FAs would act as critical friends and speak out.
David Bernstein, the FA’s chairman from 2011-14, now a critic of the system and campaigning for an independent football regulator, confirmed that perception from his experience. “The system is based on patronage and does not encourage debate. Of course the FA is always very preoccupied with the chance of being awarded tournaments, and speaking out and scrutinising the confederation risks upsetting people.”
It is also a flaw in an apparently democratic system that these questions are not asked regularly enough, and it takes a near-disaster to expose the stale, complacent insides of how the game works. And that even when the questions are asked, they are met with the sound of silence.