The ‘Dirty Dozen’ clubs will definitely face a sanction for trying to set up a breakaway European Super League, according to UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, with even a ban from next’s season’s Champions League still possible.
However, Ceferin believes that England’s Big Six — Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester United — should be treated more leniently because they were the first group to change their minds.
The harshest punishments will be for Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus, who are still clinging on to the idea that the Super League might be revived. They have been dismissed by Ceferin as ‘flat-Earthers who think that the Super League exists’ and they are the teams who seem most under threat of expulsion from next season’s European competitions.
Speaking exclusively to The Mail on Sunday after the most testing week of his professional life, the Slovenian lawyer, who was elected UEFA president in 2016, has thanked English football and particularly English fans for the role they play in scuppering the Super League plans. And he has acknowledge that UEFA need to listen to fans who have been marginalised until recently.
UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has endured a week like no other amid the Super League
In a series of hugely significant developments he also revealed:
- UEFA are ready to look again at the new Champions League proposals which increase participants from 32 to 36 teams from 2024 and which have been criticised by Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola — but Ceferin pointed out that the club owners are driving that change and fewer games will mean less money for coaches and players;
- He is open to dropping the two extra Champions League spots that were to be reserved for clubs based on their historic record, a change that could have seen all of the Big Six Premier League club qualify for the competition year in, year out even if they didn’t make the top four in the Premier League;
- He will meet fans’ groups who lobbied the Prime Minister last week and he is looking at how to integrate their voice into UEFA’s structures;
- He acknowledges that the passion and organisation which saw the Super League overturned needs to be mirrored in the fight against racism in football;
- And he has special praise for Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, boosting hopes for the 2030 World Cup bid, with England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland hoping to be UEFA’s favoured candidate.
Ceferin has experienced a week like no other, only knowing for sure last Saturday that he had been betrayed. Ceferin is godfather to the daughter of Juventus president Andrea Agnelli, one of the prime architects of the Super League.
Yet as Ceferin was driving from his home in Slovenia to UEFA headquarters in Nyon, preparing to announce the changes to the Champions League from 2024, it became clear to him that the rumours of the Super League breakaway had substance when Agnelli stopped returning calls.
The football world was rocked after 12 European clubs joined the breakaway competition
For Ceferin, a personal friendship with Juve chief Andrea Agnelli was broken by the plot
A central figure in pushing the new UEFA reforms, as president of the European Clubs’ Association, Agnelli was also negotiating to break away from UEFA. Hence Ceferin’s description of him as a ‘snake’ last week.
The irony is that Agnelli would have been thanked by Ceferin in his speech last Monday when the reforms were announced. And that the changes, expanding the tournament and reserving two spots for historic clubs even if they finished outside normal qualification places, had been driven by the very clubs who were now breaking away.
‘It was very stressful,’ says Ceferin with a degree of understatement. ‘I felt like I had been put into a washing machine. On Saturday, I went to Switzerland from my home country, eight-hour drive. I had everything ready to speak about the reforms and everything in my speech.
‘I was even thanking Agnelli. I changed the speech four times since. They were preparing stuff they didn’t tell me, the guy [Agnelli] was lying to me saying: “It’s not true, it’s not true…” In the end, it happened and I have to tell publicly what happened.’
Ceferin planned to thank Agnelli in his speech announcing the new Champions League
However, upon learning of his betrayal, the ‘snake’ was thus removed from his announcement
In an extraordinary week of high-level lobbying, Prime Ministerial and presidential interventions and mass protests, one factor above all made an impression on Ceferin.
‘Look, honestly speaking I was completely impressed by the reaction of the fans, the whole football community and not just the football community but I would say society. I never seen this.
‘UEFA did its part, the clubs that stood with us did their part. And of course the UK Government out of all did the big part. But by far the biggest part was done by fans.’
The reaction in England, which along with the refusal of Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain to take part was critical in scuppering the plans, has made a deep impact on Ceferin. He now appears to have excellent working relationships with our Prime Minister, whose threat of a ‘legislative bomb’ was key, and the Culture Secretary.
‘Absolutely I was impressed by the reaction of UK Government. I had phone conversation with Prime Minister Johnson and State Secretary Dowden many times in this 48 crazy hours. They were on the right side of history at the right time. And this is impressive.
The ESL fell apart after 48 hours thanks in huge part by the furious reaction of English fans
Ceferin is thankful for the response of fans in England and credits them for foiling the league
The UEFA president is looking to give English fans a seat at the table in discussing future plans
‘This joint effort showed that not everything is for sale, that you cannot come with billions and say: “I don’t care about tradition, history the things that you love, because I have enough money I will buy all.” No way! It doesn’t go through.’
Ceferin is especially scathing about Barca, Real Madrid and Juventus for persisting with the idea that the Super League might be revived. But intriguingly he is holding out an olive branch of sorts to the English rebels, which suggests that their exile from the game’s inner circle may be temporary. That said, he insists all 12 clubs need to be punished, though he will not specify how.
‘Let’s see. Everyone has to take consequences for what they did and we cannot pretend nothing happened. You cannot do something like that and just say: “I’ve been punished because everybody hates me.” They don’t have problems because of anyone else but themselves. It’s not OK what they did and we will see in next few days what we have to do.
‘But for me it’s a clear difference between the English clubs and the other six. They pulled out first, they admitted they made a mistake. You have to have some greatness to say: “I was wrong.” For me there are three groups of this 12 — the English Six, who went out first, then the other three [Atletico Madrid, AC Milan, Inter] after them and then the ones who feel that Earth is flat and they think the Super League still exists. And there is a big difference between those. But everyone will be held responsible. In what way, we will see.
Ceferin paid gratitude to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden (right) and Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left)
The Government’s response may provide a boost to Britain and Ireland’s 2030 World Cup bid
‘I don’t want to say disciplinary process but it has to be clear that everyone has to be held responsible in a different way. Is it disciplinary? Is it the decision of the executive committee? We will see. It’s too early to say.’
Whatever the short-term punishments, all 12 are likely to lose the safety net in the new Champions League proposals, which had been agreed but now face changes in the fallout from the failed rebellion.
The plan was for two of the new spots in the expanded tournament to be reserved for the teams with the best record in UEFA competitions in the previous five years but who hadn’t qualified for the by their league position. This year that would be on course to benefit Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund.
More often than not, it would have been two Premier League teams, as the uniquely competitive nature of the Premier League means there will always be two of Europe’s biggest clubs outside the top four and such clubs tend to have strong UEFA ‘coefficients’.
Ceferin vowed that there must be consequences for the twelves club that signed up for the ESL
The UEFA chief said Big Six clubs will have the least severe sanctions for being first to leave
However, Barcelona, Juventus and Real Madrid will be most severely punished having refused to drop out of the European Super League
Scotland may now benefit, with those spots going directly to champions of smaller European leagues, though Turkey would be first in line to get an automatic spot in the 36. Asked about changing that specific proposal, Ceferin says: ‘There’s always a chance to do changes. Any changes are possible.’
It seems too that there will be a dividend for fans, so long ignored at football’s top table. UEFA do already engage with the Football Supporters Europe group. Ceferin, though, is now keen to meet the English fans who lobbied so effectively against the Super League and will explore how to make their voice better heard.
‘I already spoke with my colleagues in UEFA to connect with those fan groups now and start discussing with them. The problem with fans being formally included in UEFA is that there are so many different groups. You have a group of Real Madrid who supported us and groups who supported the Super League.’ So, you have so many that we have to co-operate with some association which is again a problem.
Ceferin labelled the chiefs of those clubs, like Real Madrid’s Florentino Perez, ‘flat-Earthers’
Ceferin accepts that changes need to be made to the revamped Champions League format
Ceferin adds: ‘But I think it’s an important thing. And we have learned a lot from this situation. We will try to speak to as many as possible to see their view but you will never speak with all the groups, as even small clubs from my country have two or three groups.’
And at the end of a tumultuous week, maybe there will be some even better news for English football on the horizon. UEFA are due this year to decide which country will be the confederation’s official candidate to put forward to FIFA to host the 2030 World Cup. The UK and the Republic of Ireland want to submit a joint bid but face opposition from Spain and Portugal.
Ceferin is suitably diplomatic but it is clear that the relationship with Johnson and Dowden is now closer than ever might have been imagined. ‘First of all, I’m very grateful to the UK Government, to all the authorities, how they showed in his crisis that they protected football.
‘Of course I cannot say anything now. I can only say that your infrastructure and everything else is ready to host it any time. To place myself on one side is not OK, because all of them are my federations. We will see, we wait. But really I appreciate this protection of football, I appreciate it very much.
‘The only thing I said I will insist we have only one candidate. If two go, this would split European votes — that means both might lose. We will speak when time comes with all of them. Again, your infrastructure and your approach to football is the right one.’
At the end of the turmoil, maybe it will turn out to be a good week for English football after all.