UEFA, the richest and most powerful continental football confederation, elects a new president this week as it confronts a growing challenge to its cash-cow Champions League.
The 55-member European confederation must choose between Slovenian Aleksander Ceferin, 48, and veteran Dutch administrator Michael van Praag, 68, to finish the term of the tainted Michel Platini at a special congress in Athens on Wednesday after an increasingly tense campaign.
Ceferin has the heavyweight support of more than 20 federations including Germany, France, Portugal and Russia, according to the Slovenian Football Association.
England, Belgium and the Netherlands are van Praag’s leading backers.
“We need an honest football leader. No power hungry politician,” Van Praag said in a tweet last week in reaction to a Swedish media report that suggested his rival had promised Nordic countries they could stage a future European Championship.
Strongly denying the report, Ceferin told PA Sportthat Van Praag was “making up stories trying to pollute the pre-election time”.
The two have made promises to improve transparency and governance at the confederation which earns more than the world body FIFA from its flagship tournaments, the annual Champions League and the quadrennial Euro spectacular.
– Champions League controversy –
But the absence of Platini this year as he lost his battle against a FIFA suspension over a $2 million payment has seen a growing challenge to the Champions League from within Europe and outside, with the Chinese conglomerate Wanda reportedly ready to finance a rival tournament.
Neither Ceferin nor Van Praag has said publicly how they would steady the ship.
UEFA announced last month that it has decided for 2018-2021 that the four top European leagues — Spain, England, Germany and Italy — will have four automatic places in the Champions League.
But the European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL) slammed the move as “unacceptable” and threatened last week to hold rival matches at the same time as UEFA competitions.
The EPFL demanded a greater say in major decisions and the renegotiation of its accord with UEFA when Ceferin or Van Praag take office.
The EPFL wants its own seat on the UEFA executive.
The group said UEFA’s reforms were decided without consultation. “This decision will have a detrimental impact on domestic competitions and will lead to an exponential growth in the financial and sporting gap between the biggest clubs in Europe and all the others.”
Bernard Caiazzo, president of France’s Premiere Ligue, has called the move “a disaster” and “a scandal”.
EPFL chairman Lars-Christer Olsson said clubs should only qualify through sporting merit in domestic leagues.
Ceferin told French sports daily L’Equipe he would not be able to change the reform and criticism of the move is expected at the Athens congress.
UEFA also faces pressure from the European Club Association which has repeatedly been at the centre of speculation over a breakaway Super League featuring top teams from England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A.
The ECA strongly welcomed the UEFA reforms which entrenched their place in the Champions League and lion’s share of the league’s multi-billion dollar revenues.
Talk of a breakaway league could be a bargaining ploy to seek concessions from UEFA, one executive member of the continental group said.
But some leagues have acknowledged they are in talks with China’s Wanda group, a top FIFA sponsor as well as holder of a major stake in Atletico Madrid.
“If (European competition) is reorganised as Wanda has set out, there is a greater opportunity to generate more revenue from audiovisual broadcasting,” Javier Tebas, president of Spain’s La Liga told the Financial Times. – Agence France-Presse