Last year's triumphalism long gone, UEFA faces subdued Congress

Reuters News
Posted: Apr 28, 2016 11:56 AM

By Brian Homewood

ZURICH(Reuters) - After last year's UEFA Congress, president Michel Platini declared, "We're transparent, we're democratic and we're the best." That triumphant air will be gone from this year's event after a spate of scandals that led to Platini's banishment from soccer.

European soccer's governing body has not yet appointed a permanent successor, so the agenda for its 2016 Congress on Tuesday in Budapest is unusually thin, restricted to four items that are likely to be resolved in one morning.

A year ago, Platini had just been re-elected to a new four-year term as UEFA chief and was basking in the financial success of UEFA's showcase Champions League competition.

Within weeks, global soccer body FIFA was engulfed by corruption scandals and its ethics committee banned Platini from soccer for eight years, later reduced to six on appeal, over a 2 million Swiss franc ($2.02 million) payment he received from FIFA in 2011 for work done for its disgraced ex-president Sepp Blatter a decade earlier.

On April 6, Swiss police raided UEFA lakeside headquarters seeking information about a contract signed by former UEFA secretary general Gianni Infantino, who replaced Blatter, that emerged in the Panama Papers leak.

UEFA said the issue concerned Champions League TV rights it sold to an Ecuadorean broadcaster via an intermediary. It denied wrongdoing by either itself or Infantino.

In the light of Platini's absence and Infantino's departure, Europe's big clubs have been pushing behind the scenes for radical changes, which could include automatic places for some of them in the Champions League.

Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, head of the powerful European Club Association (ECA) which represents more than 200 clubs, has already spoken of a European Super League that could be organized with or without UEFA.

UEFA will not replace Platini until his appeals process has been exhausted. He has a hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport on Friday but the decision could take weeks, and UEFA has no acting president in his place.

Infantino's ex-deputy Theodore Theodoridis has taken over as general secretary, but only on an interim basis.

The format for the Champions League in 2018-2021 must be decided by the end of the year and Theodoridis has admitted that UEFA faces a "big challenge" in negotiations with clubs.

Yet, without a president or long-term general secretary, UEFA is unlikely to be able to tackle such major policy matters.

The main agenda item in Budapest on Tuesday is whether to admit Kosovo as UEFA's 55th member, itself a thorny issue as it has been resisted by Serbia.

Theodoridis insisted in March that UEFA's executive committee is strong enough to administer European soccer without a president. Critics say leading UEFA is not so straightforward and involves a delicate balancing act.

They say the UEFA president must placate the 54 national associations that elect him, which Platini did by expanding the European championship from 16 to 24 teams.

On the other hand, the president also has to appease the ECA whose member clubs make UEFA competitions so lucrative. UEFA has already seen what can happen when the clubs are not happy.

In the late 1990s, leading clubs including AC Milan and Manchester United held talks to build support for a breakaway league, and UEFA replied with a reformed Champions League to forestall the schism.

Platini, one of the finest players of his generation, used his charm and reputation to keep both sides happy, in part with decisions which helped increase the revenue of the bigger clubs.

With UEFA now missing such a leader, that delicate balance is in danger of unraveling.

(Reporting by Brian Homewood; Editing by Mark Heinrich)