Aleksander Ceferin discussed Uefa, Super Leagues, and the influence of Saudi money by saying, “It felt as though I transformed into Kim Jong-un.”

Aleksander Ceferin discussed Uefa, Super Leagues, and the influence of Saudi money by saying, “It felt as though I transformed into Kim Jong-un.”


Alexander Ceferin is seated in front of a wall adorned with framed programs from past Champions League finals. The large glass window at the end of the room offers a peaceful view of Lake Geneva, with the peak of Mont Blanc visible in the distance, now that the morning clouds have dissipated. Uefa’s headquarters are like a paradise on days like this, but its president has not always been so fortunate.

In his tenure of seven years, Ceferin has been confronted with challenges such as the Covid-19 pandemic, political instability, and Uefa’s mishandling of significant finals. Additionally, European football struggles to maintain a united front against the increasing threats to the established order and the influx of massive investments that disrupt the sport’s fairness.

During an eventful week, Ceferin is interviewed as Uefa faces an internal conflict. Zvonimir Boban, his football head and trusted colleague, resigned due to dissatisfaction with proposed statute revisions that would enable Ceferin to deviate from tradition and seek a fourth term as president.

After winning the election in September 2016, you were seen as the candidate for change within Uefa. How do you perceive the progress of the organization in the seven years since then, and have you personally evolved? In my opinion, Uefa has made positive changes in some aspects. As for myself, I believe I have remained largely unchanged as a person. My friendships have remained intact, although I am quite exhausted. If someone had asked me at age 20 if I wanted to be Uefa president, I would have inquired about the cost. While I am now well-compensated, the role also comes with a great deal of stress. One is constantly under scrutiny, often for trivial matters, but one must adapt.

Football in Europe is constantly evolving. It can be viewed as a sport, but it holds much more significance. Fortunately, our community provides better protection for football compared to other sports. Money and the belief that one can buy anything has taken over most sports, except for football. This is due to the loyalty of our fans, our rich culture, and our extensive history. Football is undoubtedly Europe’s top commodity. Despite the economic changes in Europe, football remains a constant. We are not opposed to change, but we also want to preserve it. Simply buying a club and making decisions without regard for the sport and its competitions is not acceptable. We have measures in place to safeguard the system and we are constantly striving to do our best.

Euro 2024 is set to be the first men’s European Championship since 2016 that will run under normal conditions. This brings a sense of hope and positivity for the continent. I am eagerly anticipating it, especially since the venues are conveniently located and the Germans are reliable co-organizers. The last few years have been marked by a series of crises, making the previous Euros in 11 different countries during the pandemic with travel restrictions, not exactly a traditional one. In fact, UEFA has faced more crises in the past four years than in the last six decades, but we have managed to navigate them successfully and are currently in a good position.

Uefa has been greatly affected by Boban’s departure. What is your reasoning behind the proposed changes to the statute that would allow you to potentially remain in your position until 2031 if you were to run for office again? Despite being unexpected, Boban’s departure did not have a major impact on Uefa or the European football community. We will revisit this topic at a later time, likely after our congress on February 8 in Paris where the changes may be ratified.

Regarding the recent changes, there are both legal and factual concerns. The legal issue pertains to a decision made during a 2017 congress where I proposed term limits that were then included in the statutes. However, the wording of the provision was not clear and as a result, it did not effectively limit terms as intended. This was not known at the time. In 2018, our administration attempted to address this issue by linking the wording to the existing statutes, but this was done without the necessary approval from the congress and other Uefa organs, rendering the provision invalid. We are now working to clarify this provision to ensure that there are term limits in place and to prevent the possibility of someone being able to hold their position indefinitely. Additionally, there is a member of another federation who has been constantly contacting other federations and media outlets, claiming that there is a conspiracy at play. However, this individual has not discussed these concerns with me or any other Uefa leadership members. We have been made aware of this individual’s behavior by other federations, who find it amusing and not worth taking seriously.

No one inquired about it, but I am happy to provide an explanation. Just to be clear, whether or not the suggested changes are put into effect, it will not affect my or any other executive committee member’s ability to seek re-election.

The question at hand is: Am I considering running for office again in 2027? I will make a public announcement when the time comes. To be frank, I am exhausted after all the challenges we have faced in recent times and I am unsure. However, if the rules remain unchanged, there are no term limits. This is a straightforward matter.

Boban obviously disagrees. In a statement, he strongly criticized your “personal ambitions” and a perceived deviation from the reforms you had put in place. What does this indicate about the changes? I am choosing not to comment on his statement. Those who are familiar with both of us will draw their own conclusions.

Former footballer Zvonimir Boban looks on prior to kick off of the UEFA Champions League group E match between Dinamo Zagreb and AC Milan in October 2022.

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Despite this, Boban claims he is not the only one who shares his opinion. Has Uefa become irreparably divided? If that is the case, would you reconsider your stance? It is inaccurate to claim that Uefa is beyond repair. The Congress, not one individual, has the power to decide on any necessary alterations. We have faith in our unified, democratic process to lead us towards progress.

Is it challenging for you to consider the optics of this, despite any legal implications? In today’s society, leaders often try to hold onto their power and undermine democratic processes. Many individuals may view this situation in that light. This is a question of fact that I will address when the time is right. Currently, I am not interested in discussing it. To be frank, most people are not concerned about it. I overheard one of your colleagues from England say, “We are publishing this, but our readers are not interested.” While it may be a significant topic for the media, some individuals who claim to be moral authorities only care when it aligns with their personal interests. This change has no real significance. However, it was presented as a major event and suddenly I was likened to Kim Jong-un from North Korea. That is not the case, and the decision to run or not is entirely up to me. Until I make my announcement, it is difficult to say anything definitively.

Is there a chance to make a change here? Can we implement reforms in Uefa that will modernize the outdated top-down presidential structure? It seems like there is too much power concentrated in one person. As the president, I do hold a significant amount of power, but I am also responsible for all of this organization’s issues. In reality, every decision must be approved by the executive committee. Some have criticized the changes in statutes, saying it lacks democracy. However, with the involvement of the legal committee, governance committee, executive committee, and congress, what could be more democratic?

I am confident that there is room for improvement, but I challenge you to spend six months as Uefa president and you will see that it is not as simple as it seems. I may have desired this position, but it is a difficult job. Everyone seems to have all the answers when it comes to politics and football. My office receives five proposals a day on how to change football. People are passionate about football and discussing it is what truly matters.

Can you discuss the previous trending topic: the European court’s ruling on the Super League in December? Did anything surprise you about it? The press release was the most surprising and disappointing aspect as it differed greatly from the actual decision. Our complaint to the court was not very successful. The decision ultimately favored Uefa rather than the opposing side. Those in favor of the Super League are only focused on self-promotion and granting interviews, while we are responsible for managing football. Our main focus is on maintaining fields and addressing various issues, so lobbying is not our main priority like it is for A22 [Super League supporters].

This is an unattainable venture that will never come to fruition as it lacks support from the public. It is impossible for any authority, whether it be the courts, police, or military, to force people to accept something that is so absurd. The saga of the Super League represents a larger societal issue: the idea that money can buy anything. I encountered an elderly woman in Slovenia after the initial attempt in 2021. She was in her 80s or 90s and had not been following football for some time. She stopped me and expressed her gratitude for stopping these individuals.

Why is A22 openly discussing its plan if there is no chance of it being successful? I have no idea and I am not concerned. If they have the means to go around and put on this Monty Python-esque performance, then good for them. I am not bothered and the football community is also not bothered. During A22’s visit, Kevin Miles, the chief executive of the Football Supporters’ Association, told them: “You have less supporters than the UK has had prime ministers in the last six months.” That says it all.

Chelsea fans protest against the European Super League outside Stamford Bridge in April 2021

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They are stating that they have 20 clubs prepared to proceed. If all 20 clubs were to announce their plans to break away tomorrow, would this reflect negatively on Uefa after thinking that they had stopped it? First of all, they do not have anyone. They have claimed to have 50, 20, or 200 clubs, but these are just empty claims that we are not concerned about. However, I want to make it clear: we never said they could not have their own competition. They are free to play, but it seems like they do not want to. They talk about creating something new, yet they are the first ones to apply to play in our competition. I would urge them not to participate in our competition and instead focus on creating their own with however many clubs they have. I am unsure what is preventing them from doing so.

Many organizations, including Uefa, were praised for preventing the exclusive Super League from moving forward in 2021. However, without the passionate response from fans, would it have been successful? I doubt it, but it would have likely required more time and effort to stop it. The concept goes against the very essence of football. It’s impossible to speculate what would have happened without the presence of fans, as they are an integral part of the sport. It’s challenging to say “If there were no fans, if there were no Uefa…”. However, the involvement of fans was crucial, including for garnering political support. Politicians pay attention to the opinions of fans because they are also voters.

Has there been a change in power towards the clubs due to the ruling of the ECJ? Will they have more influence in future discussions about Champions League formats? I don’t believe so. We will not make any further changes to our format. The new format will begin next season and that will be sufficient.

It seems that fans are still struggling to comprehend the new “Swiss system.” This was evident when conducting a casual survey at a pub. Have we adequately explained it? I agree with you, it appears that we have failed in our communication efforts. We were discussing this issue earlier in the week. We will now send a team to every league to engage with clubs and the media. However, it may be a bit delayed as we should have started earlier. Our communication should have been more effective. When I talk to my friends, they are confused about the 36 teams and groupings. But we are currently prioritizing addressing this and plan to start next week with some leagues.

How can we further improve conditions for those outside the top wealthy few? Our implementation of Financial Fair Play (FFP) has been successful. We have enforced a limit for clubs to spend only 70% of their revenues on wages, transfers, and agents. However, it should be noted that our main newspaper in Slovenia has significantly fewer readers compared to yours. How do we apply FFP in the media market? It is impossible to achieve a level playing field in terms of finances between Slovenian and English clubs. While it may be difficult to bridge the gap between big and small clubs, we can prevent it from widening or attempt to control it. FFP is one measure we take, along with allowing 36 clubs to qualify for the group stages in our men’s competitions. The beauty of football is that underdogs have the potential to defeat top teams.

For years, you have discussed the implementation of a salary cap across Europe. It appears to be a challenging task, as finding a solution that satisfies everyone seems unlikely. Is there still the possibility of progress? The issue is complex, with the legal aspect being particularly complicated within the EU. Additionally, limiting the budgets of European clubs may affect their competitiveness in the future, given the current influx of money into the region. Therefore, the idea of a salary cap is not currently being pursued. Some smaller clubs are not concerned about it, while some larger clubs are in favor and others are not. The situation is not well-coordinated.

You are proposing that implementing a limit in Europe causes players to seek opportunities in Saudi Arabia. That is my assertion. Given the significant spending in the Saudi Pro League, it is now more challenging to restrict things here because, in most cases, players are motivated by the higher salary.

Is your opinion still that the Saudi Pro League does not pose a danger to European football? Personally, I am not concerned about it. I believe that you cannot simply buy talent in football. A recent survey revealed that fans are more interested in following leagues and teams rather than individual players. In Spain, only 2% of the population were aware of Karim Benzema’s transfer, but 100% knew he played for Real Madrid. Therefore, I do not think that buying players is an effective strategy and we are already seeing some players returning to European clubs.

In England, the Saudi-owned club serves as a model for effective work ethic. Despite not purchasing top players, Newcastle was able to qualify for the Champions League. I was initially taken aback as I anticipated a larger spending on players for the upcoming season, but they performed exceptionally well without it. However, I do not wish to only criticize, but if the Pro League adopts this approach, it will not be sustainable in the long run. It would ultimately be a waste of money.

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This leads us to government-controlled organizations. Some argue that we have stumbled into this predicament: that European football was not prepared for their power and dominance. Are you concerned that this has intensified during your time in charge? I am not concerned about clubs owned by states as long as they abide by the regulations. My worry lies more with clubs owned by hedge funds. With hedge funds, it is difficult to determine the individuals behind them because they often manage money for investors. Where I see a significant difference, and perhaps this is oversimplifying, is that state-owned clubs have a desire to win. Whether this is for the purpose of improving their image or not, is not for me to say. But their main motivation is to win. On the other hand, purely financial funds are focused on acquiring money and winning is not their top priority. State-owned clubs are more likely to be financially sustainable since their goal is not to withdraw money. With other types of ownership, it is challenging to identify the true owners. It could also be a hedge fund with a state backing them. However, I prefer clear ownership. And the rules are straightforward: if they do not comply, they will face consequences.

Newcastle needed to establish their independence from the Saudi state in order to comply with Premier League regulations, despite suggestions to the contrary. Do you believe that clubs should be allowed to openly disclose their ownership? Honestly, I was not aware of this situation with Newcastle. However, we are also considering the issue of multi-club ownership. While no definitive solutions have been reached, do you prefer to have de facto multi-club ownership with the illusion of it not being the case? Or would you rather have us say: “You can have multiple clubs under these specific conditions, but not with complete control over them”? In my opinion, state-owned clubs can be more transparent if they adhere to the rules, compared to hedge fund-owned clubs.

Al Nassr fans sit under a giant billboard of Cristiano Ronaldo

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Have you considered taking further action against Manchester City for their alleged violation of FFP rules, despite their denial? After the court of arbitration for sport overturned the two-year Champions League ban you had imposed, could you have pursued a new case in 2021? It seems that the decision made by our club financial control body was final. City won their case with Cas, so as far as I’m concerned, the matter is closed.

Could a 32-team Club World Cup be seen as a substitute for the Champions League by Fifa and Saudi Arabia? Is this plan sustainable? It will never fully replace the unique experience of the Champions League. Additionally, hosting it every four years for a month during the summer may be exhausting for players and present challenges. Often, governing bodies receive criticism, but ultimately we are also partially responsible. However, clubs often approach us with a desire for more international matches. We try to find a solution, but then they blame Uefa for the decision, even though they were the ones who requested it. As much as I may personally not find it very exciting, if clubs want it, I cannot and do not want to prevent it. I believe that European teams will dominate, but ultimately it is in the hands of Fifa and the clubs from around the world.

UEFA has expanded its tournaments, leading to significant changes in the revamped Champions League. Many players and unions are expressing concerns about reaching their breaking point. There is a risk of a strike if governing bodies fail to listen to their concerns. As we approach our limits, anything is possible. I share your sentiment that we cannot afford any additional strain. Hopefully, this situation does not occur. However, I believe that the competition and excitement of the Champions League will only increase. Ultimately, the fan groups supported this change, although we had to compromise. The upcoming Club World Cup will be physically demanding. It is difficult to imagine playing the Champions League final and then, just a few days later, traveling to a different continent for a month-long tournament.

Aleksander Ceferin says the ban on Russian teams’ participation will stay while the war goes on.

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Is Uefa responsible for regaining the trust of the public in organizing major events leading up to Euro 2024? The investigation into the chaotic 2022 Champions League final in Paris revealed serious issues for fans in Istanbul in 2023. These concerns have been acknowledged, but it is difficult to say that public trust has been restored. Do you agree? I would say it is a fair assessment. We are actively engaging with fan groups and involving them in the planning of the finals. We did so last year and will continue to do so this year. While it is impossible to have complete trust from everyone, we recognize the importance of winning back the trust of the public. We are constantly working towards this goal by increasing communication and collaboration with supporters. As teams qualify for different finals, we will reach out to their respective fan groups and involve them in the organization of the matches.

What steps are you implementing, both in operation and structure, to improve? While some individuals have departed and others have changed roles, I have faith in my colleagues and our readiness. We have taken lessons from past difficulties and, in 2022, the Paris authorities posed a major challenge as well. However, we can address our own challenges and I am optimistic that the future will be greatly improved.

According to the Paris 2022 review, there have been claims that Uefa’s safety and security unit was not properly involved in organizing the final, although this has been disputed. Your acquaintance Zeljko Pavlica was in charge of this unit during that time. Have you made any changes to the staff since then? The head of safety and security requested to be transferred to a different position, primarily due to negative articles in your publication. He was falsely accused on a daily basis, which took a toll on him and his family, prompting him to seek a change. We now have a new individual in that role, whom I am not familiar with since the president does not select everyone. He hails from Wales, so perhaps the Guardian will view him more favorably as he is from the UK.

Just to clarify, is Mr Pavlica still employed at Uefa? Yes, he is still involved in safety and security, but in a different capacity. It is not related to organizing matches.

Has Uefa’s management of recruitment and staffing been subject to criticism? Do you believe that Uefa operates as a modern and transparent organization?

Yes, I agree. Firstly, the procedure is transparent and straightforward. Additionally, the legal department is primarily composed of English individuals, including their leader. The competitions and football division is headed by an Italian, Giorgio Marchetti, with a majority of 60% of Italian members. [Michel] Platini’s team consisted of 70% French individuals. Imagine if I needed to hire a head of my office who has intimate knowledge of my affairs, and I decide to choose someone unknown to me in order to avoid scrutiny from English journalists. This would mean that I am exposing all my confidential information and meetings to a stranger. This would not align with good governance. As the leader of this organization, it is my responsibility to protect it. Even when I am familiar with individuals, I have made mistakes in the past that I had to rectify later because they were not the right decision.

I do not believe it is fair to say that our process is not transparent. We make a judgment based on our assessment of each individual’s skills and then follow a recruitment process. However, it is important to have personal connections in certain situations.

Liverpool fans stuck outside the ground showing their match tickets before the 2022 Champions League final in ParisView image in fullscreen

As long as the conflict in Ukraine persists, you have been determined to prohibit Russian teams from participating in your competitions. Are you facing pressure to lift this ban? The only pressure I receive is from those who oppose admitting them. I have never faced any pressure from the Russian side. This ban will remain in place as long as the war continues. While I am sorry for the athletes, it is important for everyone, including Uefa, to do their part to end this senseless conflict. It is difficult for Russian athletes to speak out against their government as it could result in imprisonment or worse. They are victims of this situation. This is always a negative situation for athletes and relationships between people, but unfortunately, we are living in tumultuous times. I am deeply concerned about what I see happening in geopolitics.

Can Russia play a friendly match against Serbia in March, despite being suspended from playing European opponents? It is not within our jurisdiction to prevent it. Similarly, Serbia could also play against anyone else in this room. Legally, there is nothing we can do. Is it really such a big issue for young players to have the opportunity to play football? The match itself seems to be of little significance, as no one would even know about it unless it is brought up by English media and politics. In Slovenia, we are not even aware of the match because it is not something that people are concerned with. When discussing this with friends in other countries, they are surprised that Russia is banned and that’s all they know. So what’s the problem with them playing one friendly match?

There have been demands for Israel to be excluded from global tournaments. The International Ice Hockey Federation temporarily prohibited them recently. How do you distinguish their circumstances from that of Russia? I do not wish to be too specific. We are closely observing all situations, including this one, and it is difficult for me to provide a response. The world is currently in turmoil, with daily reports of wars. I prefer not to make any further statements.

How has women’s football evolved during your presidency and what tasks still need to be accomplished? Although women’s football is growing, it requires investment as we continue to experience financial losses in each competition. However, we view this as a necessary investment and have seen improvement over time. We now have full stadiums and a second European competition, which promotes competitive balance. Despite the focus on gender equality, broadcasters and sponsors, particularly broadcasters, still offer minimal amounts. We have made significant changes in recent years, not solely due to my efforts, but we continue to strive for more. However, our funds are limited, especially after being affected by Covid. We invest to the best of our abilities and I believe that European women’s football is the strongest in the world.

Nick Ames talks to Aleksander Ceferin in Nyon.

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Are you concerned that the gap between successful women’s clubs and struggling ones is becoming more noticeable compared to men’s clubs? Yes, I believe the gap is even greater. In Slovenia, only two first division clubs have women’s teams. This is a problem because if it’s difficult to finance something that is already profitable, it’s even harder to finance something that will take years to become profitable. The issue of whether having a women’s team should be optional or mandatory for clubs is a topic for future discussions among federations and leagues.

What inspires optimism for the future of European football and Europe in 2024? As for football, my hope lies in our unprecedented unity. We have all rejected the absurd [Super League] proposal and will continue to reject any other plan that could harm the sport. Football is thriving and remains one of the few positive aspects in people’s lives.

I am not optimistic about the current state of Europe in terms of society. There is a rise in populist and extreme right ideologies, which may be attributed to the lack of freedom of speech. In dictatorships, individuals are imprisoned for speaking out, while in so-called democracies, they are attacked in the media. This stifles people’s ability to freely express themselves and even as someone in my position, I am cautious about what I say. A single mistake can lead to years of negative coverage and have repercussions across Europe.

Despite current circumstances, I am hopeful because I believe that fundamentally, humans are inherently good and that we experience cycles, meaning we will soon see positive changes.