By Andrew Warshaw in Athens
September 14 – Aleksander Ceferin, the left-field candidate who gained pivotal widespread backing in the final weeks of campaigning, was elected UEFA president in succession to Michel Platini today, sweeping into office with a thumping 42-13 ballot victory over his only rival, Dutch football chief Michael van Praag.
The 48-year-old Slovenian lawyer has run his national federation for the past five years but was little known outside his country until the last few months.
But with the landscape of European football badly in need of change amid increasing divisions between the haves and have-nots, a majority of UEFA’s 55 national associations took the view that it was time to go for a younger man with fresh impetus to lead the organisation into the post-Platini era.
Despite seemingly lagging way behind going into the ballot, 68-year-old van Praag, who withdrew late on from the FIFA presidential election back in February, was steadfastly refusing to throw in the towel again. But it was clear well into Tuesday night that the momentum was with his opponent, not just among the smaller nations but also heavyweights such as Germany, France and Italy.
And so it proved as van Praag fell way short of the number of votes he had been predicting despite being by far the more experienced candidate with a detailed programme of reform and cost-cutting but who couldn’t prevent the voice of the smaller, middle-ranked and – some might argue – disadvantaged nations from clinching victory in what can only be described as a meteoric rise to power.
In his brief victory speech, the low-key Ceferin, who made a point of telling delegates in his 15-minute pre-vote address that he was no showman, thanked the federations for their “fantastic support.”
“It’s a great honour but at the same time a great responsibility. It means a lot to me and my family will be very proud as will my small and beautiful Slovenia. I hope one day you will be proud of me too.”
Van Praag, who is bound to be frustrated if not shocked by the margin of defeat, nevertheless put on a brave face.
“Losing is not nice,” he said. “(But) Aleksander and I are not enemies. We have the same goal, we want a different and better Uefa. He wants to do it his way and I wanted to do it mine but democracy has spoken and I respect that.”
The most pressing early task for Ceferin, who automatically becomes a FIFA vice-president – at least until 2019 when he will have completed the remainder of Platini’s term before another election takes place – will be to prevent a potentially highly damaging split between Europe’s clubs and leagues over the highly controversial plan to revamp the Champions League.
Van Praag made a point of stressing in the buildup to the ballot that he had the better contacts at the highest level and told delegates that his age should not be considered a negative, comparing his longevity with that of the Rolling Stones.
But Ceferin countered that youth should not be barrier either. “Too young and inexperienced? Well, I’m almost 50 and have been chairing my own company and the football association of Slovenia for years now,” he said.
“You can say I am young and inexperienced but I think that’s a disrespect to all the presidents of small and medium-sized federations who, 365 days of the year, have to do more with less. Presidents of these federations have to be creative, strong and inspiring and, believe me, we have experience.”
“I’m here to find ways to tackle all the problems that surround our game as someone with a new and clear vision but who is bold and brave enough to open a new chapter in the history of this amazing organisation.
“Today the wind of change is blowing through European football. It’s the end of one era and start of a new one – an era which marks the end of some privileges from another time.”
Tellingly, Ceferin finally promised to be “the most reachable and accessible UEFA president you have ever had.” That phrase, perhaps, might ultimately have swayed any lingering voters his way.
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