Ceferin elected UEFA president over fear of big clubs' influence on game
ATHENS -- Aleksander Ceferin, a virtual unknown beyond the borders of Slovenia for most of his career as a football administrator, finds himself as one of the game's most powerful figures after winning the race to become UEFA president.
The election was, as many predicted, a coronation rather than a contest with Ceferin beating his rival, Dutch Football Association president Michael van Praag, by 42 votes to 13.
Ceferin, 48, based his campaign on being the (relatively) young, cocky outsider who is not afraid to take on the continent's big clubs as they attempt to grab an even larger slice of the financial pie and exert their muscle over European football's governing body.
Until emerging victorious in Athens, Ceferin had not even sat on a UEFA committee but he now finds himself responsible for guiding it through uncertain waters as it reaches a crucial juncture in its history.
Despite running a slick campaign and clocking up the air miles, Ceferin's victory was probably three weeks ago when UEFA announced structural changes to the Champions League format, guaranteeing group stage qualification for four sides from the top four leagues (Italy, Spain, England and Germany) and changing how money is distributed.
The move prompted panic amongst the majority of UEFA's members that they are being squeezed out by the continent's big teams who will continue to demand more by threatening to form a breakaway European or World Super League.
For UEFA's 55 members, the majority of whom are small- to medium-sized football nations like his native Slovenia, it all boiled down to a simple equation.
Jesper Muller, head of the Danish FA, told ESPN FC: "We are afraid of the future because Europe's bigger clubs are becoming more influential and demanding. The balance within the European game is not right and we need somebody who will address this.
"We voted for Ceferin because we believe that he will represent us, understands the problems that nations like us face and has the strength and determination to ensure there is greater equality within UEFA. He is a president for the whole football family."
Thomas Hollerer of the Austrian FA added: "Ceferin can be the change that European football requires. He has made some bold promises about what he will do for the smaller nations and we now expect him to deliver."
The Champions League changes were supported by Van Praag, who sits on UEFA's executive committee, adding to the perception that he was a candidate for Europe's major sides and leagues.
Despite this, Ceferin was also backed by some of the continent's leading nations including Germany, France and Italy, amongst others.
Carlo Tavecchio, president of the Italian FA, told ESPN FC: "We are very happy that we will have four teams guaranteed to be in the Champions League. This is what all stakeholders wanted, even the smaller clubs. It's good for the competition and we will resist all attempts to change this.
"But that does not mean we do not think about the wider game. We were one of the first countries to come out in support of Ceferin because he is a new, positive voice who will maintain the solidarity of European football."
Ceferin revealed at his first news conference that reviewing the changes to the Champions League format will be one of his first priorities.
"We were not informed properly about this so I will sit down with all the national associations to see what can be done about it," he said.
Other items on his agenda include introducing term limits for executive committee members, spending more UEFA funds on football development, investing in the women's game and tackling match fixing and doping, which he describes as a "disease on our sport."
Rumours will continue to persist that he is little more than a front man for FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who was general secretary of UEFA from 2009 to 2016, and that he was instrumental in getting him elected.
"It was my decision to run for president," he protested in response to the claims. "I'm independent and I have my own ideas and vision on how I will run UEFA."
Ceferin wasted little time in getting down to work after his election, meeting with all UEFA's members in private to discuss his plans and the changes to the Champions League format.
Barely five minutes into the job, he already faces the prospect of putting the organisation on a collision course with some of Europe's top clubs.
Vivek Chaudhary covers FIFA and the financial side of the game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @viveksport