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Football's unity vital in meeting challenges – UEFA president

UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin has hailed European football's united response to the various challenges faced by the game during the last two years of turbulence and crisis.

UEFA President: 'Stay united, football wins'

In his address to delegates from UEFA's 55 member associations and other football stakeholders at Wednesday's 46th UEFA Ordinary Congress in Vienna, UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin underlined the encouraging successes achieved in difficult circumstances throughout an extraordinary period.

He expressed the firm belief that football would continue to provide proof that "a different world is possible, a world of resilience and hope, in which not everything is dictated by power, profit or cynicism".

Football has stood tall

The UEFA president spoke of the solidarity demonstrated by the football community in its response to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as to the threat of a so-called breakaway European Super League, which emerged last year ahead of UEFA's Montreux Congress.

"I am proud," Mr Čeferin said, "to have had the opportunity to work alongside many great women and great men over the last two years.

"In adversity, we stood strong. Together we found the solutions we needed. When we stand together, we are unbeatable, and society wins as well."

Mr Čeferin described the failed Super League venture as "a brazen attempt by a handful of oligarchs and football aristocrats to launch a project that would have trampled on all the values of European football and European society".

The UEFA president in Vienna
The UEFA president in Vienna

Bold achievements and creative decisions

The UEFA president remembered how, in 2020, UEFA had put its own interests aside and postponed all its competitions, enabling Europe's domestic competitions to be completed. He heralded the creativity shown by UEFA in amending its calendar and adapting competition formats in record time, devising a 'Final 8' for the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League.

Football was the winner, he emphasised, "when UEFA succeeds in organising a men's EURO during an unprecedented health crisis in 11 countries; when UEFA invests five times more in the Women's EURO than in the cycle before; when UEFA takes the gamble of adjusting its Women's Champions League format, centralises its rights and fills stadiums with over 90,000 spectators to watch a competition with unbelievable potential".

The UEFA president also recalled that amid widespread scepticism, UEFA had this season boldly launched another new and diverse club competition, the Europa Conference League – "a competition that lives and breathes the kind of football we love, and reminds us of the football of the 1980s".

Sound financial management and willing help

During the COVID period, Mr Čeferin explained, UEFA had not only honoured all of its solidarity payments during an unprecedented economic crisis, but also made payments in advance to relieve the pressure on struggling national associations and clubs.

UEFA, he continued, had solemnly pledged to increase solidarity payments to its member associations for the next cycle, especially through the HatTrick development programme, as well as its payments to clubs irrespective of whether they qualified for its competitions.

Football benefited, he said, "when UEFA manages its finances so rigorously that it can plough over 97% of its income back into football and spend less than 3% of its total revenue for operating costs".

Listening and defending general interests

Mr Čeferin praised the "relentless" work under way to ensure that UEFA EURO 2024 in Germany would be a unique, accessible and sustainable EURO based on humanity and solidarity, and expressed his gratitude for the close relations being established with the European Club Association – "[setting out] a peaceful vision for club football for the decade to come".

Turning to financial fair play, Mr Čeferin welcomed the support given to UEFA by all European football stakeholders for a major overhaul of the system "in order to safeguard the long-term future of club football, stimulate investment and restore economic balance".

UEFA's announcement yesterday of the final format and access list for its club competitions as of the 2024/25 season had also followed fruitful consultation within Europe's football community. "When UEFA listens to the majority of clubs, supporters and coaches and draws a line once and for all under the notion of qualification for UEFA competitions on the basis of coefficients," Mr Čeferin said, "football is the winner.

"As a governing body with a duty and responsibility to defend the general interest rather than the interests of a minority, we have decided, together with the ECA and the clubs, to stay true to our principles of sporting merit … and purpose over profit."

UEFA had the loyalty of supporters in mind, the UEFA president explained, in giving fans around 20,000 tickets for free for some of this season's club competition finals – "in recognition of their loyalty" – while also giving a discount on 10,000 tickets for the men's UEFA Champions League final.

Mr Čeferin also took time to remember how crucial medical provisions in place had saved the life of Denmark player Christian Eriksen during last June's UEFA EURO 2020 match against Finland. "When UEFA adopts strict medical protocols that can save the life of a player who suffers a cardiac arrest on the pitch, football – and life – are the winners," he stated.

Mr Čeferin addresses the UEFA Ordinary Congress in Vienna
Mr Čeferin addresses the UEFA Ordinary Congress in Vienna

Caring for world football

Mr Čeferin welcomed the strategic alliance formed with the South American confederation CONMEBOL "to celebrate more than 50 years of friendship between European and South American football. It's not an alliance against anyone. It's an alliance for the good of football."

UEFA had demonstrated solidarity with the rest of its sister confederations, whether through the UEFA Assist programme, the UEFA Academy and the UEFA Foundation for Children, or simply by agreeing to reduce the proportion of European teams at the World Cup from 2026 onwards in order to improve the balance between the continents.

A united spirit

Returning to the thwarted Super League plan, Mr Čeferin heralded the united spirit shown by member associations, clubs, leagues, players, coaches, supporters, commercial and TV partners, the IOC, the EU political authorities and European governments in "opposing an arrogant and contemptuous plan devised by a handful of billionaires who cannot embrace the concept that, on the football pitch – as in life – you might lose to someone smaller than yourself".

Football, he added, could also only derive benefit from UEFA's initiation of a debate on its governance model with all the game's partners and stakeholders, in particular through the Convention on the Future of European Football launched in September last year.

Facing problems honestly

Mr Čeferin stressed that alongside all of these positive developments, it was also important to recognise failings as well as successes. "We still have many problems to solve to make our sport a role model and a greater source of inspiration than it is today," he reflected.

Violence at football matches remained a major problem. "When a family goes to watch a football match, it's time for fun and enjoyment," Mr Ceferin said. "People should feel safe in and around a football stadium. They should never ever feel in danger."

The UEFA president said that more needed to be done to promote and integrate minorities in football at every level. "To claim that there is no racism or discrimination in football is not true." he underlined. "It exists, in football as in the rest of society. It's up to us to tackle this issue head-on.

"We also need to look after players' physical and mental health. We must take steps to prevent them being abused on social media, we must offer psychological support to help them deal with the pressure they are under."

Mr Čeferin was unequivocal about the need to ensure that everyone was given a chance in football – "that the small can continue playing against the giants, and sometimes shock the world by beating them. That is what makes football such a fantastic game."

Football brings hope – and can make a difference

Football's leaders, Mr Čeferin said in closing, "should be very careful not to bite off the hand that feeds them. If their demands go too far, they risk destroying the social pact on which our sport rests."

"When football shows that a different world is possible, a world of resilience and hope, in which not everything is dictated by power, profit or cynicism, society as a whole is the winner.

"When football can count on leaders like you," he told the UEFA Executive Committee members and national association delegates in Vienna, "then I know that our sport is in good hands. I hope that, together, we can continue to ensure that football, our football, is the winner for many years to come."