Gianni Infantino’s unopposed re-election as the president of FIFA breezed by recently, an occurrence that passed with fewer eyebrows being raised than there were when social media footage emerged of him taking one of the poorest corner kicks you are ever likely to see.
While in Zürich, FIFA continue upon their mission to mould the World Cup into something unrecognisable from what it once was, open to tender to the highest bidder, no matter how questionable the buyer might be, UEFA observe proceedings 255 miles away, in Nyon, nursing many of the cards that FIFA would dearly love to hold themselves and owning a similarly defective moral compass to the one Infantino inherited from Sepp Blatter.
UEFA have been busy of late. Presided over by Aleksander Čeferin since 2016, they have overseen the final of the inaugural Nations League, benefitted greatly from the celebratory city centre scenes which marked Liverpool’s incredible Champions League homecoming, and have been widely criticised for allowing the Europa League final to take place in Baku, a venue which provoked Arsenal’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan to stay away from what should have been one of the biggest games of his career.
Added to this, UEFA continue to cast an eye upon the horizon. The finals of Euro 2020 are a year away, a tournament which will sprawl itself across the continent, from Dublin in the west to Baku in the east, from Saint Petersburg in the north to Rome in the south, taking in many cities in between and culminating in London.
This is an unwieldy legacy which was left by the disgraced Michel Platini, a cul-de-sac that the former UEFA president and FIFA heir apparent guided the tournament down, when Turkey was denied the opportunity to host Euro 2016 at the preference of France.
In 2012, with an active bid ongoing for Istanbul to host the 2020 Olympic games, when Turkey gave a guardedly interested yet lukewarm response to the overtures of UEFA to bid for Euro 2020, a tournament, legend has it, Platini had all but promised them after their complaints of favouritism for France during the 2016 bidding. European football’s governing body were pushed into a corner.
With the only other confirmed interest in hosting the tournament emerging from a Scotland, Ireland and Wales joint bid, and another co-hosting concept offered up by Azerbaijan and Georgia, Platini came up with his grand plan for the 60th anniversary of the European Championship: to be celebrated by a pancontinental 2020 finals.
It was then, and remains now, a chaotic concept, which has been further clouded by the introduction of the Nations League and the 2016 extension of the European Championship finals from a 16-team tournament to one for 24 teams. UEFA essentially diluted what had become the best international tournament in the world.
Football cannot stand still, it must evolve, but bigger doesn’t always mean better. Just as in 2016, at the 2020 finals, 36 group games will be played – simply to eliminate eight nations. This will not happen within the confines of one country; it will happen across the length and breadth of Europe. The carbon footprint alone will be biblical. It would have made more sense for Turkey to have been allotted the 2016 finals, with France taking on 2020, 60 years after the Gallic nation hosted the very first edition.
Common sense and football’s governing bodies don’t always meet in the middle, however. As UEFA expands, brands and sells itself, you end up with a scenario where a reputed 100,000 fans arrive in Madrid for the peaceful enjoyment for a Champions League final, where only 32,000 tickets are made available for the supporters of the two clubs. It made for the peculiar effect that the atmosphere on the streets of the city centre was more electric than it was in the stadium – a stadium that isn’t even the largest in Madrid and can only boast the third biggest capacity in all of Spain.
This is dubiously complimented by Arsenal and Chelsea fans being allocated 6,000 tickets each for the Europa League final, only for the journey to Baku to be so foreboding that a significant number of tickets were returned, the game played out within the type of half-empty stadium that used to be a regular sight at many major European finals up until around 20 years ago.
It wouldn’t be difficult for UEFA to have a shortlist of three stadiums for both their showpiece club finals, with common-sense geographical and capacity requirement decisions made at the end of the group stages.
The club game in Europe is reaching a crisis point. Domestic leagues are increasingly uncompetitive. Juventus have just won their eighth successive Scudetto, Bayern Munich clinched a seventh successive Bundesliga, Barcelona have won eight of the last 11 LaLiga titles, while Paris Saint-Germain have now lifted six out of the most recent seven Ligue 1 titles to have been contested.
It is insane to find yourself saying that a Premier League, which contains such a heavily bankrolled club as Manchester City, has been the most competitive of Europe’s five biggest leagues over the course of this decade.
This still hasn’t been enough to stop the uncomfortable fact that the 2018/19 Serie A, LaLiga, Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and Premier League titles were all won by the same teams that won them in 2017/18, and that it is far from unfeasible that the very same five teams will win them again in 2019/20.
When does the penny drop for those who not only pay through the turnstiles but fork out for ever-increasingly expensive sports television subscriptions, to watch these domestic league processions? You are asked to pay a lot for a repetitive outcome. Where is your value for money?
The spectre of a European Super League refuses to go away, no matter what denials and counter-denials are made. I wrote an article a few months ago about how the introduction of a European Super League, combined with a reduced domestic league, could have the side-effect of levelling the domestic playing field.
If Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United were being asked to play a 30-game Premier League campaign and a 30-game European Super League season, then the high intensity of that 60-game commitment, with the FA Cup thrown on top, would give the likes of Newcastle, Leicester and Everton hope of challenging for the biggest honours domestically, and offer the prospect of maybe joining that European Super League elite eventually. too.
I doubt very much that a lack of competition was what Lennart Johansson had in mind throughout his leadership of UEFA. A week ago, Johansson died, aged 89. Not an entirely easy figure himself by any means, he was, however, a man committed to the improvement of football, rather than the improvement of his personal legacy. His influence was so pronounced that he is credited as being the father of the Champions League.
Johansson lost two crucial elections which altered the direction football would move in, not only in Europe, but globally. In 1998, Johansson lost out on the FIFA presidency to Blatter. With the Swede having fought a clean fight, it has been long rumoured that Blatter was the beneficiary of backs being scratched and handshakes being made before campaigning had really begun. João Havelange had hand-reared his successor and nobody was going to stand in the way of his man being anointed.
Nine years later, it was to Platini that Johansson lost the UEFA presidency, after a 17-year residency. With his massively respected rival 26 years his junior, Johansson still put up an admirable fight in his attempt to retain his position, losing by just four votes.
It is no coincidence that both FIFA and UEFA are considerably more publicly tarnished entities since Johansson lost those two elections of 1998 and 2007. A man that knew football could never stand still, Johansson’s brand of evolution was rooted in a common-sense approach that is sadly lacking in today’s football governments.
While FIFA and UEFA seek out ever-elaborate ways to change football – rarely for the better – at the time of Johansson’s loss, it is with a heavy sense of what might have been that we can only imagine the direction he could have taken the game had he defeated Blatter in 1998 or held off Platini in 2007.
Instead, what we now have is a finely balanced duel for power between FIFA and UEFA. FIFA may ultimately call the shots, yet it is UEFA that holds the most valuable cards. It makes for an uneasy symbiosis, and the price of upsetting UEFA with Qatar 2022 and a 24-team Club World Cup might well be the advent of a European Super League.
Maybe one day there’ll be the offer of invitations to the best ranked non-European nations to take part in a yet-bigger European Championship? In such circumstances, UEFA would then hold all of the cards. Whichever way it all goes, none of it will have been the vision of Johansson.
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74