Keynote speech to 45th UEFA Congress highlights how wider European football community has chosen “unity over self-interest” to overcome a series of crises – starting with its response to the global pandemic.
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UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin has underlined the importance of unity in guiding European football’s response to the COVID-19 virus and thwarting plans for a 'European Super League'.
Addressing delegates at the 45th UEFA Congress in Montreux on Tuesday, Mr Čeferin called for concerted action to prevent what he called "attempts to destabilise our game made by a small group of individuals determined to disregard and steamroll over the values we share".
Solidarity and togetherness
Mr Čeferin began his annual review by highlighting UEFA’s and the wider European football community’s united response to an unprecedented challenge – the COVID-19 crisis.
"In the face of adversity, you have three choices," he reflected. "You can let it define you, let it destroy you, or let it strengthen you. For me, it is clear which choice we have taken. The crisis that began a little over a year ago will only make us stronger. Not only that – but football will emerge stronger than ever. Why? Because football has been united from day one. This unity has not been a facade. It has been real, sincere and strong. All of us, without exception, have stood together."
'One of its greatest success stories for more than a century'
The UEFA President thanked, among others, the world football body FIFA, other continental football federations, national associations, clubs, leagues, players' unions, supporters and national authorities for working together to seek solutions enabling European football to surmount a multitude of problems.
"We have shown that when football as a whole is faced with an unprecedented situation," he said, "we talk to each other, we listen to each other, and we find solutions. No hidden agendas…this crisis has proved once and for all that football is embedded in our society's DNA. It is part of our continent's history – and our collective memories. It has been one of its greatest success stories for more than a century."
Mr Čeferin reserved special praise for front-line medical staff, who, he said, had "enabled and continue to enable society to function today. We owe them our eternal gratitude and our unfailing support".
'(UEFA competitions) restored hope when the whole world had come to a standstill'
The UEFA President emphasised that the return of UEFA’s competitions last summer after the hiatus caused by the spread of the pandemic had "restored hope when the whole world had come to a standstill".
"Football is unique," he said. "It is not just a hobby, it is much more than a game, and it is stronger than passion. It brings people together and it brightens up our lives. When, after lying dormant for several months, football returned…it gave people a framework again. It gave people their bearings back. Football was a true lifeline for many. It showed them there was light at the end of the tunnel."
EURO 2020: 'Perfect opportunity to show the world that Europe is back'
Mr Čeferin called for resilience and vision in facing future challenges – including the organisation of this summer's UEFA EURO 2020 finals after a year's delay.
"Rest assured, we will be ready," the UEFA President said. "Thanks to the host associations and the authorities in the host countries, we have been able to adapt and we will try to give you as 'normal' a EURO as possible. It will be the first event of a global dimension to be held since the pandemic struck…it will be the perfect opportunity to show the world that Europe is adapting. Europe is alive and celebrating life. Europe is back.
"I am confident. We have experience: almost 1,300 UEFA matches have been played since August, 98.4% of them without any problems. And let’s not forget last year's UEFA Super Cup in Budapest, successfully opened to spectators at 30% of the stadium's overall capacity. By the time the EURO kicks off in June, a large proportion of the public will have been vaccinated, rapid tests will be available and drastic health measures will be in place to further ensure the event is safe. We will not take any risks."
Financial fair play
The UEFA President underlined UEFA’s determination to help clubs recover from financial problems suffered during the COVID crisis.
"I have read…that we are planning to abolish financial fair play," he said. "Let me be clear: that is not going to happen. However, we do need to adapt it to the new reality. We need to encourage and release investments. We need to correct some of the injustices that financial fair play may indirectly bring about in the current circumstances."
Discrimination: 'Unacceptable and needs to be stopped'
Mr Čeferin urged a proactive stance to combat new forms of discrimination that had emerged in recent times.
"There have been abuses both on the pitch and on social media," he said. "This is unacceptable and needs to be stopped. Allowing a culture of hatred to grow with impunity is dangerous, very dangerous, not only for football, but for society as a whole. We’ve had enough of these cowards who hide behind their anonymity to spew out their noxious ideologies."
'Selfishness is replacing solidarity'
Mr Čeferin moved on to the plans revealed at the weekend by a group of European clubs to form a breakaway ‘Super League’.
"There has been a shift in recent years," he said. "A semantic and ideological shift. A shift that too often ignores what happens on the pitch, that ignores sporting merit. A shift that has to be stopped.
"The ultimate aim, for some, is no longer to decorate the club's trophy cabinet with silverware, but to fill the bank account with cash. Contempt (for smaller clubs, for supporters respectful of tradition and for institutions) is replacing ethics. Selfishness is replacing solidarity. Money has become more important than glory, greed more important than loyalty, and dividends more important than passion.
"Football is part of our heritage. The Champions League is part of our heritage. We are custodians of an ideal. That of open competitions in which everyone can dream. Respect for history. Respect for tradition. Respect for others. This means something.
"There is a reason European football leads the world at both club and national team level. Because it is based on a clear model that has stood the test of time. A model based on diversity. Diversity is what makes European society unique. The same applies to football. People need to know that anything is possible. People need to know that everyone has a chance. We need to keep dreams alive."
European giants - thanks to UEFA…
"The big clubs today were not necessarily big clubs in the past," the UEFA President continued, "and there is no guarantee that they will be big clubs in the future. Football is dynamic, unpredictable. This is what makes it a beautiful game.
"Those clubs who think they are big and untouchable today," he explained, "should remember where they came from. And they should realise that if they are European giants today, it is partly thanks to UEFA – which for over 60 years has been protecting the ideal of competitions accessed purely on the basis of sporting merit. Without UEFA, who knows where they would be now."
Mr Čeferin reflected that, seemingly, "a tiny handful of club bosses have been trying to profit from the situation in which we have found ourselves of late in order to impose their demands and get their hands on this heritage of ours.
"They have been trying to privatise football, one of society’s last remaining collective assets. But we were ready for them, we were expecting it. We had already developed our vision, a vision that we have been working on for more than two years now. And we have the backing of the vast majority of clubs, including giants of the game who respect football, its history and its ideals."
Mr Čeferin made a special plea to English clubs supporting the ‘Super League’ plan. "Gentlemen, you have made a huge mistake," he said. "What matters is that there is still time to change your mind. Turn back – come to your senses. Do it out of respect for the English people, for the home of football."
'Building the football of the future'
The President highlighted a lengthy consultation process behind the creation of a new club competitions format, unveiled by UEFA on Monday. The revised format will be introduced for the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League and UEFA Europa Conference League as of the 2024/25 season.
"This is no compromise. It is an ambition shared by a vast majority," said Mr Čeferin, "Competitions will remain open to all, with more participants from more countries, more big matches and more opportunities for smaller clubs to go further.
"Off the pitch, UEFA will remain the governing body, while at the same time increasing the involvement of clubs in order to continue developing European football in a spirit of collaboration. In short, it is a perfectly balanced ambition. With these reforms I believe we are building the football of the future…while a few selfish people are trying to kill the beautiful game."
'We have chosen solidarity'
"In times of crisis," Mr Čeferin closed, "human beings can choose between two options: self-interest or solidarity. You have chosen, we have chosen solidarity. At every level. A choice that will enable us to emerge stronger from this crisis, and make football stronger than ever."