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Strengthening European football's unity

President Aleksander Čeferin has told the UEFA Congress that the period since his 2016 election has brought "change for the better".

UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin speaking at the 43rd Ordinary UEFA Congress in Rome
UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin speaking at the 43rd Ordinary UEFA Congress in Rome ©UEFA.com

Restoring unity; regaining respect; reinforcing solidarity. Key elements that have marked the two and a half years since Aleksander Čeferin was elected as UEFA's seventh President.

In his opening address at the 43rd Ordinary UEFA Congress in Rome on Thursday, the UEFA President said that it had been essential to overcome a period of crisis in football during his first term of office, and to use the moment to bring about change to take the game into a positive new era.

Mr Čeferin described his election to the helm of European football in September 2016 as "a jump into the unknown."

"At that time football, at both world and European levels, was being rocked by the most serious governance crisis in its history – and yet you decided to entrust the keys to the UEFA house to a virtual unknown."

The UEFA President described the time as "a unique opportunity to change, for the better." Restoring unity and respect, he said, had been a priority as he set out on his presidency – and emphasised the positive results that had emerged.

In addition to bolstering the relationship with UEFA's 55 member associations, Mr Čeferin said that a crucial step in strengthening the unity of European football had been the reinforcing of relations with key football stakeholders and including them in the decision-making process.

"Regaining the unity we had lost," he said, "meant allowing the ECA [European Club Association] and European Leagues representatives to sit on our Executive Committee in order to give clubs and leagues a voice… signing a new memorandum of understanding with the European Leagues…. working hand in hand with [players' body] FIFPro to protect the interests of players, especially their health and dignity."

The UEFA President said that the road to greater unity had also meant "honest, direct and uncompromising dialogue with our clubs. We talked to each other. We listened to each other. We understood each other. Today, we are united again."

Mr Čeferin thanked the ECA for "showing respect for more than 60 years of history and tradition. Thank you for showing respect for the 55 national associations that ensure that, every weekend, millions of youngsters are able to play football in decent conditions, supervised by trained coaches and qualified referees. Associations that are bringing through the Modrićs and Mbappés of the future for your benefit.

UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin in Rome
UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin in Rome©UEFA.com

"National team football and club football are not enemies. They are both part of the same game and, together, they form a virtuous circle. Your success depends on that of the associations, and vice versa."

The UEFA President said it had been imperative to place respect as a major priority on the agenda. "This is why we have strengthened UEFA's good governance and transparency, and issued good governance recommendations for our member associations," he said.

Respect, Mr Čeferin added, also meant respect for the rules. "Those who cheat should be punished, if only out of respect for all those who make all the effort and sacrifices necessary to abide by the rules," he said. "It is a message that applies to doping, match-fixing, financial fair play and corruption."

The President underlined the importance of preserving UEFA's heritage and protecting the history of the institution. "When crisis hits, it is not the time to suddenly forsake everything that has gone before," he said. "I am not the president of a 'new UEFA'. I am the president of UEFA, a UEFA that can be proud of its past and confident about the future."

UEFA, Mr Čeferin insisted, must continue to champion diversity, and in particular women's football.

"Women's football does not need to be developed just because it is a good thing to do, or because political correctness requires it," he said. "It needs to be developed because we believe in it, and because, in 2019, men and women should be treated equally.

"Contrary to what some people say, women's football is not the football of the future. Women's football is the football of today, of now."

UEFA, Mr Čeferin said, would continue to pursue and promote dialogue and cooperation with other continental confederations and the rest of the football word – "breaking down borders and helping the confederations and non-European associations in greatest need in an unselfish, non-patronising way. Thanks to the new UEFA ASSIST programme, launched in cooperation with FIFA, we are helping to develop our sport in other continents."

The UEFA President added that unconditional support would be given to FIFA projects that UEFA considered to be fair, "even when they go against our own interests. But respect also means telling our friends, family, colleagues, bosses and partners when we disagree with them and when we think, in all humility, that they are wrong."

Mr Čeferin said it had been essential to restore hope and to give new meaning to the word 'solidarity'. "More than anything, [this] means redistributing as much revenue as possible," he reflected. "Thanks to income of around €5.7 billion and a redistribution rate of over 80%, we will be giving more money back to our sport than any other sports federation in the world.

"More money for participating and non-participating clubs and national teams, more money redistributed through HatTrick V, and more resources for everyone to develop football in our continent. That is solidarity."

Mr Čeferin makes his opening address to the UEFA Congress
Mr Čeferin makes his opening address to the UEFA Congress©UEFA.com

The launching of new competitions, the UEFA President went on, would benefit all clubs and national associations. "Respect therefore meant creating a third UEFA club competition that will enable more clubs from more associations to play in Europe, experience Europe and dream of Europe," he said of UEFA's recent decision to introduce a third UEFA club competition for the 2021–24 competition cycle.

"New competitions that, at last, enable every single national association to play matches that actually mean something. The UEFA Nations League is unique. The UEFA Nations League, already a tremendous success, represents the future."

The UEFA President closed by emphasising the need for the football community to have a strong social and humanitarian vision. "It means thinking of our society, our children, future generations, our planet," he said.

"This is why we launched the #EqualGame campaign, promoting access to football for all, regardless of disability, background, religion, age or sexual orientation. Why we have launched a child safeguarding programme designed to ensure that children are never subjected to abuse of any kind in a football-related context.

"This is why, with assistance from 21 national associations, we launched an initiative for child refugees so that displaced children can rediscover the joy of living, the right to play, the carefree way of life and the dignity that every child deserves. Why we have joined and given our official backing to the United Nations Sports for Climate Action initiative, because climate and environmental issues concern everyone, and football must not live in a bubble.

"Finally, this is why, since I was elected, we have tripled our funding to the UEFA Foundation for Children. A foundation that has financed more than 180 projects, benefiting over 800,000 children."

"Yes, UEFA now has a true 'social fair play' policy," Mr Čeferin concluded. "And yes, UEFA continues to, and always will defend the universal values that are the DNA of our sport: tolerance, sharing and equality – on and off the pitch."