Ceferin warns English that unity is key to progress, whether financial or beating Covid

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin speaks exclusively with Paul Nicholson

October 16 – “In March when the pandemic started we united to save the season. Some didn’t understand that if we aren’t united we are weaker,” says UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin. The record shows that the season was impressively saved, but with the rate of covid infections spiking, in some European countries alarmingly, there is a need for more saving.

Nowhere is the football lifesaving debate more pointed at the moment than in England with clubs in the lower professional tiers fearing Covid-precipitated financial extinction, while the opportunism of the big six Premier League clubs (led by Manchester United and Liverpool’s US owners) unleashed a short lived powerplay for English professional football based on bailing the little guys out.

Ceferin has been watching that powerplay develop with interest during the international window but says that “in principle we [UEFA] have no jurisdiction”.

That doesn’t mean to say that UEFA doesn’t have something to offer as England and its clubs sit solidly within the European system. Indeed, part of the ‘Big Picture Project’ powerplay was undoubtedly to create space for an expanded European club narrative.

While not committing to any side of the English debate, Ceferin is clear that the English condition is part of a different and bigger picture.

“We should sit with the leagues and encourage and support them to unify their eco-system,” said Ceferin.

The message again is that it is unity that creates strength and a more positive future, whether it is beating the coronavirus, or dealing with the financial imbalances within the professional game.

Ceferin’s big picture goes a bit deeper than rearranging the financial deckchairs on what at times looks like English football’s professional-game Titanic. Just throwing money at the problem will not solve it long term.

“We have to face the wider issues. For example, in the Champions League you can only register 25 players, this is not the same in the majority of leagues [clubs often warehouse players to prevent rivals signing them]. And of course financial fair play across leagues is not the same, but it should start the same,” he said.

Relationships with both the Premier League and the FA are strong, says Ceferin. “I had a good relationship with Richard Scudamore (former EPL CEO). We had some tough fights but I think we are good friends. I trust Richard Masters. Our relationships with all our leagues are good, and with 99% of our clubs, but it is perhaps not so interesting to the media if we are united.”

World Cup 2030

Where unity might be more difficult to achieve is aligning behind one bid from Europe for the 2030 World Cup hosting.

Spain and Portugal formally announced their joint bid last week, while a British bid involving the four home nations led by England (with the possible inclusion of Ireland) has also been mooted.

Ceferin has spoken to the FA chairs of Spain, Portugal and England. “I told them that I expect just one European bid [two bids would split the European vote] and they agree with that. There is still time. What we know is that both could host, they have the infrastructure, that is not a problem. And 2030 has to be in Europe.

“But the last six months has only been Covid.”

Pandemic challenges

UEFA has now played more than 450 matches since the summer without a major covid incident they have been unable to deal with. These have ranged from European club qualifiers for teams from small countries with budgets of €20,000 or less, through to the big clubs who, in covid times, are less of problem with their chartered flights and bio-secure bubbles.

The key point is that the match schedule is highly developed and has little room for manipulation, and any wriggle room would diminish if the pandemic spike is not managed.

“Our calendar is very full, we have a lot of matches to play, and we are planning to play them. For us the only question is whether we play them with spectators,” said Ceferin.

“As leaders in sport, and in politics, we have to give to the message that we will try to return things to normal. Those that criticise are in a safe position because they don’t do anything. Trying to do something more in this situation can be politically much more dangerous as you will be open to criticism.

“But the world has not stopped and if politicians can only warn of the apocalypse then what are people supposed to think. I think our leaders – whether in sports or politics – need to speaking in more positive and optimistic language.”

Getting fans into stadia has been an on-going conversation for UEFA and its member associations with health authorities across the continent.

“We are now up to 30% capacity as a rule of thumb for European matches but it does depend on government to work with us as football. They know the situation in their countries better than we do, and each country is different. We are working with some very flexible governments for solutions and others who are not so flexible,” he continued.

“It is quite a challenge and it isn’t over yet. In football we have an industry in Europe that is the world’s leader – there aren’t so many European industries that can say that. We have grown fast, we provide employment, we pay taxes. We have a responsibility also to bring hope to people’s lives that normality will return.”

Football, with its helter skelter, often chaotic, on field and off field narratives, provides a much needed reminder of that normality. It provides a diversion and hope.

“During lockdown we had four major European finals – Champions League, Europa League, Women’s Champions League and a youth championship finals. The level of infections compared to the scale and impact of these events was minimal. So leaders can sit at home and do nothing, or we can show we can do something positive,” said Ceferin.

“We played our Super Cup in Budapest with spectators. It was more expensive to do this than it would have been to play without spectators, but we showed it could be done and with a positive outcome.”

More positive outcomes are undoubtedly what are needed. England’s professional clubs know this, they need to embrace it as well.

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