Duo duel for UEFA top position as battle shapes up into a big vs little slug-fest

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By Andrew Warshaw

September 7 – With the UEFA presidential election a week away amid signs that the two remaining candidates are feeling the heat, Michael van Praag has received a boost after the English Football Association, now under new leadership, has decided to throw its heavyweight support behind the Dutch football chief.

Van Praag is the only remaining challenger to emerging favourite Aleksander Ceferin following the withdrawal of veteran Spaniard Angel Maria Villar.

Both men go head to head in Athens next Wednesday for the right to fill the void left by Michel Platini and the FA’s decision to back Van Praag was explained by David Gill, a member of the UEFA executive committee and Britain’s vice-president of FIFA.

“While we note Angel Maria Villar Llona’s withdrawal overnight and fully respect Aleksander Ceferin’s credentials, we have agreed to support Michael van Praag,” said Gill in a statement.

“He is someone we have come to know very well and worked closely with in recent years, particularly because of our shared commitment to securing FIFA reform. Mr Van Praag would provide the strong leadership European football requires…”

“Having worked alongside him on the UEFA Executive Committee, Mr Van Praag is also the right choice to bring all aspects of the European game closer together, particularly with his knowledge of club football, and will be able to foster close ties with other confederations.”

Whether English support will have a sufficient knock-on effect to carry van Praag over the line remains highly questionable with so many smaller associations looking likely to back Ceferin. So far, none of the remaining British federations have shown their hand whilst the Republic of Ireland have stated their support for the Slovenian.

Ultimately the result in Athens will be about vested interests and which candidate best serves the aspirations of individual associations. Both believe they have at least 25 votes among UEFA’s 55 federations which makes Thursday’s crunch meeting with the six Nordic federations in Copenhagen all the more important. Van Praag is due to present his programme first, followed by Ceferin.

The build-up to the Copenhagen summit has taken on something of a contentious edge after van Praag reacted furiously to a Norwegian report claiming that FIFA president Gianni Infantino had sought to influence next week’s election via his right-hand man.

The online publication Josimar claimed that Infantino’s strategic adviser Kjetil Siem, while still general secretary of the Norwegian federation, attended a meeting of Nordic federation presidents in May, accompanied by Ceferin, and that they were given “a clear recommendation” to vote for the Slovenian. The publication also alleged that in return, they would be promised joint Nordic hosting of either Euro 2024 or 2028.

Ceferin does know fellow Slovenian Tomaz Vesel, who Infantino recently  appointed as head of the FIFA audit and compliance committee in succession to Domenico Scala, and Van Praag was furious with any suggestion of collusion.

Writing on his Twitter account, he said:  “I am shocked after reading this information. If it is true, than we are back to the old-school way of doing business in the football world. That is exactly what I want to change. We need an honest football leader. No power hungry politician. Someone you can trust with football.”

Ceferin hit back saying the Dutchman is “making up stories to pollute the pre-election” period.

A few hours before van Praag’s hard-hitting rant, Ceferin had made his points in no uncertain terms in an interview with Insideworldfootball, pointing out serious flaws  in Josimar’s reporting. He described as “completely ridiculous” any suggestion that advance deals had been done with the Nordic countries and dismissed as fanciful the idea that Infantino had in some way intervened on his behalf. He also made a point of stressing that host cities are chosen by the executive committee rather than one man (see http://www.insideworldfootball.com/2016/09/06/ceferin-dismisses-nordic-claims-insulting-uefa-politicking-heats/)

If he had read Ceferin’s take on Josimar’s claims more carefully, van Praag may perhaps have toned down his Twitter blast which now looks to have caused a division between the pair. But he was not prepared to do that.

Instead, he told Insideworldfootball: “Elections for hosting tournaments are of course done by the exco but I know from my own experience that the president can at least influence the members.”

“I did read Aleksander’s comments and in every tweet I made a point of saying ‘if’ the report was true. If it is, then I stand fully by what I said. If it is not, that’s of course very different and I’d be very happy. But I can’t possibly make that judgement from a distance.”

Van Praag, meanwhile, said he hoped the backing of the English FA would influence any lingering waverers and “encourage other countries who are still hesitating” to vote for him. Whether that is wishful thinking will be revealed in a week’s time.

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