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Competitions defended

Lennart Johansson spoke against the prospect of "elitist closed leagues" at the UEFA Congress.

The outgoing UEFA President Lennart Johansson identified preserving the pyramid structure of football as the greatest challenge facing the game in the near future in his address to the 31st UEFA Annual Congress in Dusseldorf.

Keeping dream alive
Mr Johansson spoke out against the prospect of "elitist closed leagues" and said fans of all clubs should have the right to dream. "We must strenuously protect the pyramid structure of our sport against any potential breakaway groups, or elitist closed leagues with no chance of promotion or relegation," he said. "This last point is key to the universal popularity of our game. The dreamer in all of us wants to believe that we too, one day can see our club, however big or small, in a UEFA Champions League final. It is also this dream that drives the fans to the matches on a weekly basis, and keeps our game healthy and vibrant. This is the base of our football pyramid that supports the top tiers. We must do everything we can to make sure that we protect it."

Setting standards
Mr Johansson also reflected on the high points of 2006, focusing firstly on the success of the FIFA World Cup in Germany, for which he served as chairman of the FIFA Organising Committee, and then the UEFA Champions League. He said of the latter: "The UEFA Champions League has continued to set new standards, both on and off the field. It delights football fans across Europe and is providing income which benefits the whole of the football family." He added that highlights of the competition were now broadcast in prime time in China, were achieving greater television exposure in the United States and that the 2006 final in Paris drew the highest television audience figures ever.

Pride in competitions
Mr Johansson's speech also touched on changes to the UEFA Cup, the start of qualifying for UEFA EURO 2008™ and steps to strengthen the women's competitions, and to broaden the number of associations involved in Futsal. He said: "In every competition, UEFA has worked hard so that the national associations can have tournaments that colleagues are proud of and want to be part of."

Bond with associations
Moving on to issues of policy, Mr Johansson stressed the importance of UEFA's partnership with its member national associations. "There should be no doubt that UEFA's partnership with the national associations is the most important of all," he said. "It is the foundation of the football pyramid in Europe - and it is the special bond that binds together the football family on our continent."

Grassroots development
He added: "That is why I have given high priority over the years to the role of our assistance and development programmes, which have now generated over €600million for the member associations. This is roughly one billion Swiss francs and, I repeat, this refers only to the associations alone and does not include the solidarity payments to clubs and leagues. In addition, I am delighted with the work we are now doing together, through the HatTrick programme. For the 2004-2008 period, we have earmarked a budget of roughly €316m and I pay tribute to the way in which you, the associations, are using these funds to help build the grassroots of the game in every part of Europe... For me it is clear - if the grassroots are not cultivated, football at all levels will suffer."

Greed among problems
Mr Johansson also identified the challenges facing European football, pledging to fight against doping, the trafficking of young players, match-fixing, illegal gambling and political intervention in football. He added: "We must be prepared to stand united against the greed of individuals and clubs who see football as only a business for turning over a profit."