Minutes after chairing his first executive committee meeting as the seventh president in UEFA’s 62-year history, a suitably attired Aleksander Ceferin approached a lift on the lower ground floor at the luxury resort complex where the organisation’s top brass had been staying.
Turning to a handful of reporters who had been door-stepping the meeting, the new kid on the block, who had hardly had time to catch his breath since his landslide victory over Michael van Praag 24 hours earlier, stopped before he got in and quipped: “It’s all gone so quickly, it’s crazy. I know what you are thinking. Who the … is this guy?”
He read our minds.
Never before has one person, man or woman, enjoyed such a meteoric rise through the ranks of football politics to take up such a powerful position. So how did it happen? How did someone who had been head of his national federation for five years but was virtually unknown outside of his own tight circle pull off such a remarkable victory?
Why did three-quarters of the UEFA electorate – not just small and medium-sized nations looking for a figurehead to take on board their grievances but some key big-hitters like Germany, Italy and France – throw their weight behind the Slovenian lawyer and dismiss the attributes of the vastly more experienced Michael van Praag, a long-serving administrator with a network of important contacts?
All kinds of conspiracy theories have been bandied about. That Ceferin did a series of backroom deals; that he made a number of promises about tournament hosting he knew he couldn’t keep; that he was helped on his way behind the scenes by active lobbying from the powerful and influential Russians; that he will be a puppet of FIFA president Gianni Infantino who reportedly backed his candidacy.
Some of these theories, dismissed by Ceferin as lies and a figment of an inquisitive media’s rampant imagination, may possess a modicum of truth. But perhaps not much more.
There is little doubt that the UEFA electorate wanted change. A new vision, a fresh approach, better communication, more effective dialogue. They were also cautious about voting in someone (even though van Praag denies it) who could be perceived as old school.
Much of the content of the two candidates’ respective manifestos were relatively similar. The difference is that Ceferin had age on his side, however strongly van Praag pleaded with delegates that at 68, he still had plenty to offer as he compared himself to the Rolling Stones. Even more importantly, Ceferin had never been part of the decision-making process at the highest level. He brought no baggage. And that was an attractive proposition.
To get an insight into how it all started, I spoke to Ales Zavrl, general secretary of the Slovenian FA who worked as Ceferin’s number two. I wanted to know about the seeds of Ceferin’s popularity and how his candidacy suddenly snowballed in the final days of campaigning to brush van Praag aside and sweep the 48-year-old into power to launch the post-Michel Platini era.
“As soon as Aleksander came to our federation, he brought about stability,” explained Zavrl. “He has no ego and over recent months had a very good dialogue with other associations just at the time when relationships between UEFA and FIFA were not at their best.”
As a result, says Zavrl, when UEFA were looking for a credible candidate to replace Platini and the regional group of ex-Yugoslav federations met in Ljubljana earlier this year, they identified Ceferin as a possible contender. Much of the rest of Europe quickly liked what they saw. Someone who could unify big and small, rich and not so rich.
“Support didn’t just come from the Balkans,” says Zavri. “It came from all over Europe. The important thing to realise is that Aleksander is not part of the football establishment. Yes he is a federation president but he was out of the existing cartel, if you like. It was a big advantage. Don’t forget, too, that he is well-educated and has a lot of experience in management, inside and outside football. It’s not true that he will have to start from scratch.”
As for van Praag, who must be getting sick and tired of losing election campaigns having withdrawn from the FIFA presidential race back in February, he said all the right things about democracy doing its bit. Yet the Dutch football chief was hugely disappointed by the margin of defeat having made by far the more effective pre-ballot speech when he outlined a raft of detailed and much-necessary reforms he would bring about if elected. The fact is that once it became clear Ceferin was way out in front, several van Praag backers jumped ship. In the final hours before the ballot, at least three federations deserted the Dutchman, who a couple of weeks ago thought he had at least 25 votes in the bag.
“People made a choice for a fresh and younger face but I had calculated that,” insisted van Praag as he digested being crushed 42-13. “I am not stupid. Perhaps it was the bandwagon effect. People tend to walk behind the music. Aleksander very cleverly – and I mean this positively – arranged that a lot of countries expressed their support openly. A number of members were honest enough to tell me that were switching sides. But I had to scratch my head as to why because I thought people were meant to vote for programmes.”
Hinting at deal-making – perhaps over a joint bid for the 2028 Euros – without actually saying it in so many words, van Praag added: “I can’t understand why the Nordic countries, for instance, apparently supported Aleksander without even knowing his programme. Or that’s what I read. How is that possible?”
The answer, or at least part of it, is politics. Twas ever thus. Yet the burning issue of Champions League reform also undoubtedly helped Ceferin pick up key support. A majority of nations were clearly more confident that the Slovenian would fight their corner more rigorously than van Praag who, for all his finger pointing at Europe’s top clubs for signing up to the deal, was in fact one of those who negotiated and endorsed the changes.
Another key reason why so many members went for Ceferin was the general dissatisfaction with the composition of the executive committee and the power it wields, an area he has indicated he would take a close look at. And last but certainly not least is the question of continuity, something that clearly concerned the Germans. Van Praag couldn’t disguise his hurt at the Netherlands’ traditional ally – off the field at least – being in the other camp. German FA boss Reinhard Grindel quickly explained that one away, saying UEFA needed the same leader “for longer than two and half years”.
Nor had Van Praag, it seems, given enough clear signals that UEFA’s Greek acting general secretary Theodore Theodoridis, who has done a quiet and efficient job and is popular, would be given the job full-time under his leadership. Making Theodoridis’s position permanent was the first decision taken by Ceferin within 24 hours of victory. “Michael had indicated that he wanted to have a change in that area,” said Grindel who then proceeded to throw in an unexpected salvo as he dug the knife in even deeper.
“This big majority (of victory) shows that a lot of federations wanted to have a new dynamic from outside. Michael had a chance for the last seven years to come up a number of reform ideas within the executive committee. But he didn’t. Many of my colleagues thought that was a problem.”
A problem which in the end proved insurmountable and played into the hands of Ceferin. Right place, right time. A wind of change, as the new man said himself, is blowing through UEFA. Now he has to prove he has the credentials to harness that momentum, deal with a raft of delicate and sensitive issues facing the organisation and unify all the various factions and vested interests.
Easier said than done.
Andrew Warshaw is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball and was formerly Sports Editor of the European. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org