UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin explains why the solidarity of football's stakeholders offers a positive lesson.
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UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin is playing a pivotal role in guiding European football and its governing body through the COVID-19 crisis.
In this interview for the upcoming issue of the UEFA Direct magazine, he talks about UEFA's leadership during these extraordinary times, and explains why the spirit of solidarity and sacrifice shown by football's various stakeholders offers a positive lesson for the future.
What has been your personal experience of the COVID-19 crisis?
These recent months have obviously been a period of great uncertainty for everyone. As far as my family and myself are concerned, it’s brought us even closer together.
As UEFA President, you've lived on the front line of football’s longest period of inactivity since the Second World War. How have you coped with the situation?
Well, you must remember that the Second World War didn't actually stop football completely, unlike the COVID-19 crisis... From a professional point of view, there's been a lot of pressure and a great deal of hard work – but I'm happy and relieved that football is returning across Europe.
UEFA has rewritten its match calendar to ensure its competitions can 'return to play', while minimising risks to the health and safety of everyone involved. What did it take to do this?
Key stakeholders have had to sacrifice something. UEFA has sacrificed part of its season to enable the completion of ongoing domestic leagues by the end of July, with UEFA then completing its own 2019/20 club competition season in August. The leagues agreed to this, and the solidarity of the clubs will be equally important for the national-team window in September.
In what ways has responding to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic brought Europe's football community closer together?
We've seen a great deal of unity and solidarity between UEFA, national associations, clubs and leagues. That's been a quality which you can see in the decisions taken. There's been a real overall willingness to reach compromises.
You're in constant contact with UEFA's 55 member associations across Europe. How is UEFA helping them respond to the crisis?
The associations are all facing a variety of challenges. UEFA's relationship with them is a crucial cornerstone of our activities – they've always backed us in what we do, and we always support them. So, we've made an advance payment of €236.5m from UEFA's HatTrick programme funding* that they can use to offset the consequences of financial losses caused by the COVID-19 situation. Moreover, the associations can naturally rest assured that they will be able to count on our unfailing support in the future.
Did you always believe that UEFA's 2019/20 competitions would still be played to a conclusion in 2020?
I believed it from the first moment. You should always be optimistic, and if something like this crisis happens, you must have a plan ready. At the present time, we will be playing matches without spectators until further notice. We will not take any risks.
Do you feel that UEFA has taken the right decisions at the right time over these months?
We, as a governing body, have had to bear in mind that we must take care of all of football – not just UEFA's competitions. Consequently, we've tried to lead the way in Europe, and I think we've done so quite successfully. I think the decision to postpone EURO 2020 to next year was a key moment, because it was taken at quite an early stage. Everybody understood that we did this to help the other stakeholders and, once more, I must underline the spirit of total unity and solidarity that was forthcoming.
What steps can UEFA take to protect grassroots football across Europe from the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis?
There's been a major focus, of course, on the elite competitions. But it's also clear that grassroots football will always be a vital part of our mission. Given the medical protocols and provisions that will be in place, it will be important first of all that no one takes any unnecessary risks. And we must all be especially careful where children are concerned.
What have you learned about the underlying strengths of European football in this period? What lessons can be learned for the future?
I think it's hard to say at this stage what UEFA will learn, and what the world will learn. We'll certainly all learn that we're very fragile, and that a virus can actually bring the world virtually to a standstill… and that means football as well. But we'll all come through this crisis, and I'm sure that we'll emerge stronger and wiser than before. The football community has shown not just unity and solidarity, but also friendship and respect. We're communicating with each other every day, and we must continue to do so in the future. We might have disagreements, of course, but as long as we communicate and are all ready to sacrifice something, then we'll be on the right path.
As a football fan, what do you think you'll feel when you next watch a UEFA match in a stadium?
I’m sure that it will be a great feeling… like everyone, I would feel even better if the fans were there. But I'm an optimistic person, and my great hope is that spectators will be able to return to our matches as soon as possible.
*Since 2004, UEFA's HatTrick programme has channelled revenue from the UEFA European Championship to national associations to support football development projects. Despite the postponement of EURO 2020, UEFA will honour its fifth HatTrick funding cycle, investing a total of €775.5 million in European football over the next four years.