New UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin wants to protect Europe’s national leagues from the threat of breakaway competitions.
Ceferin was elected last month amid talk of a future closed-shop Super League and breakaway cross-border divisions, as some clubs seem ready to chase bigger commercial deals by moving beyond the bounds of national leagues.
“I am against killing national leagues. That is out of the question,” Ceferin told The Associated Press.
He spoke ahead of Friday’s annual meeting of the group of European leagues, which revived recent tension with UEFA, and could become the new president’s most difficult stakeholders.
The former Slovenia football federation leader said he was open to innovation such as creating regional leagues but within limits and inside UEFA’s control.
“There are some new ideas and not necessarily bad, but UEFA should be involved in that,” Ceferin said in his first major interview at UEFA headquarters on Thursday. “It should not hurt national leagues because without national leagues I think football is dead.”
Radical change looked possible this year as UEFA was without a president during talks with clubs on Champions League entries and distributing billion-dollar annual prize money for the three seasons from 2018.
Some wealthy and influential clubs exploited FIFA’s ban of Ceferin’s predecessor, Michel Platini, by framing the negotiations around threats to break away, or forcing UEFA to lock a cartel of storied clubs into Europe’s top competition without the need to qualify via domestic competitions.
Ceferin took office three weeks after UEFA sealed a compromise deal that favoured the big-four countries: Spain, Germany, England, and Italy. It left mid-ranked clubs doubting where they fitted in the Champions League’s future as broadcasters demanded more high-profile match-ups.
Moving quickly to build relations with European Club Association leaders, Ceferin believes the Super League threat is over for now.
“It would create a war,” he said. “We are on the same side with the big clubs. They don’t want to do it without UEFA. Clubs also know they would have problems if they would break away. If it would be easy, they would be already gone.”
The latest trend is exploring regional leagues where neighboring countries each provide some teams. The North Atlantic and Balkans are options, creating more compelling and higher-standard competition than the individual national leagues.
Ceferin said cross-border leagues could supplement national leagues, not replace them.
“As an additional competition it’s a good idea. (I)t should be played for those who don’t qualify for the Europa League and Champions League, maybe from the New Year on,” he said.
“We can’t kill the national leagues. If you take, for example, two clubs out of the Slovenian league (into a Balkan league) then the Slovenian league is over.”
Elected in a landslide with a mandate to help the smaller UEFA member federations, Ceferin also wants to defend tradition.
“People like revolutions, they like to speak about big changes, but you should be clever,” the criminal lawyer said. “You should take into consideration everything, and national leagues are too important.”
On Friday, the group representing leagues in most of Europe’s 55 member federations stated its claim to be treated by UEFA with more importance.
Angered at being left out of recent Champions League talks as a deal neared, the European Professional Football Leagues ended its working agreement with UEFA and set a March 15 deadline to negotiate a new one.
The current accord means European top-tier matches have not been played in direct clashes with the Champions League on midweek evenings protected by UEFA for its signature club competition.
Asked about his negotiating and leadership style, Ceferin said: “The important thing is that you are ready to listen.”