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Exclusive: UEFA president Ceferin on mission to end gap between football's haves and have nots

Exclusive: UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin tells Gab Marcotti the governing body will do everything to ensure a fair financial playing field.

KYIV, Ukraine -- UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin was 19 years old when he was called up to serve in the Yugoslav Army. Military service was mandatory and alongside him were teenagers from Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia and the rest of a country that would soon implode in the most violent and brutal way.

Five years later, civil war broke out and he was called back to arms. This time, it was the Slovenian Army and this time, his enemies were the very buddies he had served with a few years earlier.

"Luckily, I never had to shoot [anybody]," he says. "But I knew many people that lost their families. And it was unbelievable that something like that could happen in the middle of Europe, with the world watching and nobody doing anything."

"It scares you," he adds. "The situation in Europe scare me from time to time. The situation in the world scares me from time to time. Everything is possible..."

His voice trails off. It's a rare moment when he breaks from his cordial formality in the course of an interview that is mostly about football rules and policy. Otherwise Ceferin is all business, keen to get his point across.

On this day, he wants to talk about the logistical difficulties faced with holding the Champions League final in Kyiv, why he's confident the tender process he introduced will make future finals "fan-friendly" and the reasons he opposed FIFA president Gianni Infantino's proposal to sell the rights to two new FIFA competitions to undisclosed investors: "There's a problem of transparency and a problem of good governance."

But the theme that really gets him going and which, in many ways, strikes to the heart of what he and UEFA do, is finding the right equilibrium between sport and business, between development and profit, between a public trust of member nations and a revenue-driven corporation. In the course of an exclusive interview with ESPN, Ceferin outlined measures that could be implemented soon to address competitive imbalances including luxury taxes, squad limits and restrictions on loans. He also backed the 24-team Euros.

"[UEFA's] task is to develop football and to distribute money," Ceferin says, pointing out that 85.3 percent of the organisation's revenues goes right back into the system. Roughly 75 percent flows back to clubs, mostly in the form of prize money; the rest of it goes into development, from women's football to youth football, sometimes directly and sometimes via the national associations.

Here's the thing, though. Nearly half of UEFA's income comes from national teams -- the Euros and European qualifiers -- and those, like the governing body, are non-profit entities with a mission to develop and redistribute.

(That's one of the reasons why the European Championships were expanded to 24 nations in 2016. It was a decision that predates Ceferin but one he backs, all the while acknowledging that it divided opinion. "Whatever you do, some will say that it's wrong. But I like it, because you saw Wales, you saw Iceland, you saw 'smaller nations' going very far. It was very interesting, so I think the format is good and in my opinion, it should stay. And my opinion is now quite important...")

But roughly the same amount (47 percent) comes from club competitions -- the Champions League and, to a far lesser degree, the Europa League -- and the majority of clubs, especially the ones who generate money, are there to make a profit for their owners. They simply have a different raison d'etre and there's a tiny knife edge on which to balance their goals with those of UEFA.

"I can understand that clubs want to have big profits and they want [their] share of those profits and frankly it's still in the interest of football for them to do that," he says. "Many people ask whether there is too much money in football and I always say 'No, there isn't enough.' I want more, but distribution is the key. If we distribute it properly, then the money goes where it should be."

It's an issue that strikes close to home for Ceferin. In his previous job as head of the Slovenian FA, 80 percent of his budget came from UEFA. And many of the smaller associations are even more reliant on the governing body than that.

Ceferin is hoping to redress the delicate balance of club soccer in Europe so that the smaller associations and leagues aren't completely left behind.
Ceferin is hoping to redress the delicate balance of club soccer in Europe so that the smaller associations and leagues aren't completely left behind.

Until now, the formula has been pretty simple. For years, UEFA focused on growing the Champions League pie thanks to ever-rising broadcast and commercial revenue. You could, if you were of an Ayn Randian bent, justify wealthier clubs in bigger leagues getting more of the pie since the larger pie meant the little folks also got bigger slices than before.

But in late summer 2016, the screws were turned even more in favour of the big clubs in the big leagues. It was decided that from 2018-19, the top four from the four highest-ranked European leagues would each send four teams directly into the Champions League group stage. Not only did this mean that four countries would supply half the teams for the main portion of the competition, but also that the number of guaranteed spots would rise from 11 to 16. At the same time, the European Clubs Association (ECA) were granted two spots on UEFA's Executive Committee: they were now inside the tent.

UEFA were pretty much strong-armed into it by a small group of top clubs who, according to multiple sources, threatened to break away and form a European super league if their demands were not met. It occurred at a time when there was a veritable void at the top of UEFA. Former president Michel Platini was banned by FIFA for accepting a "disloyal payment" while Gianni Infantino, UEFA's former secretary general, had left to become FIFA president. Contracts needed to be signed, time was running out and the big clubs held all the cards.

"I'm not going to say that if I had been there then [it] would never have happened," says Ceferin, who was elected in September, a few weeks after the deal with the clubs was struck. "I don't know. The thing is there was a lack of power there. We were in a kind of vacuum."

"I think the ECA should be members of the Executive Committee because they are stakeholders and it's always good to involve stakeholders in the decision-making process," he adds. "If you decide on something without asking anybody else, you're always going to run into problems. As for the changes to the format, we have to be realistic: the big five countries bring in [around] 86 percent of all the money and take 60 percent... It's probably just the reality of football."

The problem with the "reality of football," though, is that it can be more accurately described as a "new normal." The gap between the super-rich (the top dozen or so clubs) and everyone else has grown disproportionately, seomethings UEFA's own benchmarking report outlines every year.

You can get more detail here but suffice to say, most leagues are dominated by one -- sometimes two or three -- juggernauts who earn far more than everybody else and can spend far more. That pattern helps explain why the same clubs have won six in a row in Germany, seven in a row in Italy, five of the last six in France.

In Spain it's more of a duopoly, with two clubs winning 13 of the past 14 seasons. In the Premier League, you can call it an oligopoly, bearing in mind that if you take Leicester City's fairy tale out of the equation, the same six clubs have finished in the top three places every single year for the past 15 seasons. The pattern is repeated writ small in most other leagues, with a monopoly or duopoly: Olympiacos have been Greek champions in 12 of the past 13 seasons, Porto or Benfica have won 16 in a row in Portugal, Ajax or PSV Eindhoven 16 of the past 19 in Holland.

And so the relative "superclubs" in every country, fuelled by Champions League money and selling to the big leagues, raid the opposition for talent. Rinse and repeat.

Ceferin and FIFA president Infantino, right, don't exactly see eye to eye on matters of European football.
Ceferin and FIFA president Infantino, right, don't exactly see eye to eye on matters of European football.

Ceferin says he wants to do something about it. A week ago, he told the European Union that the concentration of wealth among a small group of clubs "threatens the competitive balance that is essential to football's appeal," adding that "there is an urgent need to act and respond before it is too late."

"I think it's one of the biggest challenges we have ahead of us," he says. "I don't think we can [close] the gap or bring all of the clubs [on the same level], that would be a very naive way of thinking. But there are things we have to change and it's a subject we're discussing with our stakeholders. It's also something I've discussed with the European Union, so we'll see what we can do. But at the very least we'll be trying to stop the gap from widening so quickly."

The part about the European Union is key. European law, broadly speaking, is geared towards a free market. You can't restrict the flow of labour -- which makes limits on foreign players impossible, unless they're from outside the EU -- you can't have direct state subsidies (at least not from EU states) and limiting spending is something of a minefield. (Even Financial Fair Play, whose goal, in any case, was sustainabilitya and not competitive balance, was a tough sell.) There aren't many EU-compliant tools to help competitive balance, but he's willing to explore those at his disposal.

Ceferin says that conventional salary caps seem "quite impossible." The idea of "luxury taxes" -- where if you spend beyond a certain amount, you have to pay an equivalent amount into a common pot that is then redistributed - are being debated, but they remain "a challenge."

"We can have squad limits," he says. "We already have them in the Champions Leagues but [many national] leagues don't have them."

The idea there is to halt the stockpiling of talent as there are players who rarely play at certain clubs who would make a real difference elsewhere. "And we should restrict or prohibit loans," he says. "We have one club that had 186 players under contract, out of which I think 80 were on loan. Do you need 80 players on loan or should they play for some other team?"

Ceferin's example isn't even the most extreme. There is one club who, in the 2016-17 season, had 187 players under contract, with 115 of them out on loan. But the point stands. If done correctly and in unison with squad limits, this would force clubs to make decisions on players and talent would be spread around. What's more, these are often younger players and it's not clear that their development is helped by endless loan stints.

Addressing the European Union, he also questioned Europe's freedom of movement laws, which currently allow clubs to sign 16-year-olds from abroad as long as they are within the EU or European Economic Area (EEA). It's a veritable loophole to FIFA regulations that prohibit the movement of minors until the age of 18 and it's often highly damaging to clubs from smaller leagues, who lose talent often for little or no compensation.

Ultimately, we're talking about tweaks, not overhauls, and Ceferin hopes they are the sort stakeholders will agree to. There's a bit of carrot and stick as well, since correcting the competitive imbalance should also reduce costs for some of the bigger clubs.

Ceferin appears determined and talks a good game, but so too have others before him. What's obvious is that he's not going to impose things from above but rather work it out with stakeholders wherever he can.

If they don't like it? Here you can refer back to the answer he gave in Monaco last summer.

"If they don't like me, they can just vote me out [when his term ends in February 2019] and I'll go back to Slovenia," he says. "I'm not attached to this chair."

Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.

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