European Soccer Gets New President, He’s a Slovenian Lawyer

  • Ceferin promised to challenge dominance of most powerful clubs
  • Banned ex-president Michel Platini allowed to say farewell

For the first time since 2007, European soccer has elected a new president. Aleksander Ceferin, a little-known Slovenian lawyer, will replace now-banned Michel Platini as the leader of the Union of European Football Associations, the biggest, richest and most powerful group in the global sport after FIFA.

Ceferin beat Michael Van Praag, a reform-minded 68-year-old from the Netherlands, by a vote of 42-13, at a UEFA congress in Athens on Wednesday.

Aleksander Ceferin on Sept. 14.
Aleksander Ceferin on Sept. 14.
Photographer: Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

The election was scheduled after Swiss prosecutors accused former FIFA President Sepp Blatter of making an illegal payment of 2 million Swiss francs ($2.1 million) to Platini. Both men have been banned from soccer. They maintain they did nothing wrong.

Platini was given a rarely allowed dispensation from his soccer ban to address the UEFA meeting, where he maintained his innocence and vowed to continue the quest to clear his name. Platini, one of the best soccer players of his generation who previously had hopes of becoming FIFA leader, has said people who hadn’t played the game should not be in charge of running it.

Ceferin, who has a black belt in karate, runs a law firm and was elected to run soccer’s governing body in his home country in 2011.

His elevation means two of global soccer’s most senior leaders are lawyers. Gianni Infantino, a career soccer administrator who was Platini’s number two at UEFA, emerged as the surprise winner of FIFA’s presidential election in February. Like Infantino, Ceferin has promised to introduce reforms, including term limits to the executive positions at UEFA. He’s also committed to tackling match-fixing and introducing greater transparency in the bidding process for major events like the Champions League final and the quadrennial European Championship.

Biggest Challenges

“It’s a great honor, but at the same time a great responsibility,” Ceferin said in a speech after the vote. “It means a lot to me. My family’s very proud about it, my small and beautiful Slovenia is also proud about it and I hope one day you will also be proud of me.”

The main challenges for the new president relate to the 1.3 billion euros ($1.5 billion) in prize money that’s shared among participants in the elite Champions League. UEFA recently agreed to guarantee four places per season to teams from the four biggest leagues -- England, Italy, Spain and Germany -- a compromise that hasn’t satisfied anyone. Teams from smaller countries have cried foul, and there is still talk of a wholly separate competition among the biggest leagues. Van Praag said he’d try to scrap the Champions League agreement if he was elected.

Ceferin also pledged to tackle the power of the big clubs in his campaign. That resulted in a slew of endorsements from smaller and middle-sized nations, starting with several Nordic countries. Once his popularity grew, larger soccer powers including Germany and France pledged their backing, making Ceferin a firm favorite before the vote in Athens.

Following his election win, Ceferin said dealing with the fallout from the Champions League deal would be his first task.

“I have to sit down with all 55 national associations about what is the agreement and what can be done about it,” Ceferin told reporters. “We should show we are the ones who are the governing body. At the same time, we have to have dialogue with the clubs and I’m sure this situation can be solved.”

The new president also appeared to have support from Infantino, whose adviser Kjetil Siem in May urged Nordic leaders to support Ceferin’s candidacy. In July, FIFA appointed Ceferin’s friend and casual football teammate Tomaz Vezel, Slovenia’s former chief auditor, as its head of audit and compliance. Infantino attended the congress, wishing both candidates luck and saying he’d be happy to work with whoever won.

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