Aleksander Ceferin

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UEFA president postpones talks over revamped Champions League

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UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin announced he is postponing talks over restructuring the Champions League, calling discussions about reworking the qualification process “premature” after heavy opposition from national leagues.

Ceferin was set to meet with European Club Association chairman – and Juventus chairman – Andrea Agnelli and European Leagues president Lars-Christer Olsson on September 11, but that has been put off indefinitely until the two sides are “ready for meaningful discussion.”

The 51-year-old Slovenian has been pushing for a Champions League that largely secures qualification to the group stage from performance in the previous year’s competition rather than via placement in the national league tables, proposing instead a promotion and relegation model that would see 24 of 32 group stage teams locked in place no matter their domestic results, with the bottom eight teams “relegated” from the Champions League each season to the Europa League.

Critics of the new system – of which there are many – have complained that it would close off the competition from a significant amount of teams that would otherwise qualify via national league finishing positions. For example, under the proposed model, semifinalists Ajax would not have qualified for last year’s competition based on its Eredivisie title, instead forced to progress through the Europa League far enough to earn promotion. National leagues also argue that the new model would degrade the drama down the stretch of the season, with very little to play for after a champion is crowned and relegation positions are decided.

“We are currently in the process of gathering feedback from our national associations,” Ceferin wrote in a letter to Agnelli and Olsson obtained by the Associated Press, “and I feel — more generally — that a new discussion now would be premature as we are analyzing feedback and proposals coming from different parties.”

Ceferin said the reason for the postponement was an expanded timeframe and did not refer to criticism or backlash. “As you know very well, UEFA deliberately kicked off the review process for the 2024/27 competition cycle much ahead of our regular schedule and we are therefore in no hurry,” Ceferin told Agnelli and Olsson. “We do not, in any case, expect to make a decision this year.”

Agnelli’s ECA has been the largest supporter of the new model, wishing to push the group stage from four-team groups to eight-team groups as to profit off a larger, more expansive group stage with 14 group stage matches per team instead of six.

According to the AP report by Rob Harris, the Premier League is staunchly opposed to the new model, and while the league claims to have the support of all member clubs, Manchester United chairman Ed Woodward is an ECA board member. Atletico Madrid went on the offensive from Spain, claiming the new model is “the biggest threat in the history of European football in recent years.”

”We firmly believe that European competitions should be a reward for excellence,” a joint coalition of Spanish clubs, including Athletic Bilbao, Atletico Madrid, Malaga, Sevilla, Real Sociedad, Valencia and Villarreal wrote back in early June, ”in which the best teams participate in a competition open to all, based on the principles of sporting merit, solidarity among clubs, fair distribution, etc.”

UEFA president: We will explore UCL revamp despite criticism

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UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin countered “negative energy” from critics of any Champions League overhaul that could lock in places by defending the need to be “constantly thinking about improving” European competitions.

Leagues across the continent – particularly Spain’s La Liga – fear their competitions would be damaged if UEFA pursued a concept to create a largely closed-off Champions League where 24 out of 32 teams are guaranteed automatic qualification the following season regardless of where they finish in their domestic leagues.

“We have the best competition in the world by far, for now we don’t know when or if any changes to our competition will be made,” Ceferin told The Associated Press. “So the ones who criticize every day should start taking care of football in their own countries. I am not sure if there’s nothing to criticize.

“We just agreed to continue one more cycle (of European competitions) 2021-24 without changing anything. UEFA is a very dynamic organization and always has to explore if and how our competitions can get better. We are constantly thinking about improving. The reason that you’re the best doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t get better.”

As part of a broad consultation process, Ceferin is willing to study any concept from the European Leagues organization for UEFA’s three competitions, including the Europa League 2 which begins in 2021.

But the concept that is embraced by the elite clubs was presented to the leagues, including La Liga President Javier Tebas, in a private meeting on Wednesday at UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland.

“We were attacked even before the first meeting and we thought for a while that any consultation process is not appreciated by some of the stakeholders,” Ceferin said. “It’s perfectly clear to me that we are not just a stakeholder, we are the governing body of European football and we have to safeguard all European football. But I don’t like secret meetings. I don’t like to hide things from the stakeholders. That’s why we started the discussion so early.

“Maybe we shouldn’t do it after we see all the negative energy, hostility, false solidarity coming out.”

Ceferin and the European Club Association were irked by Tebas hosting a meeting on Tuesday in Madrid of clubs and leagues to amass opposition to any significant changes to the format of European competitions. The AP reported Friday from a recording of Wednesday’s meeting with leagues that Ceferin hit out at suggestions he was “killing football” by looking at ideas that include enlarging a new third competition to 64 teams.

A Champions League concept, which has been seen by the AP, would introduce promotion and relegation to the Champions League that would help to lock in guaranteed slots for elite clubs.

Four Champions League teams would be relegated each season into the next season’s second-tier Europa League. They would be replaced by the Europa League semifinalists, who would be promoted.

From the 2024-25 group stage, 24 of the 32 teams could retain their places the following season regardless of their domestic league finish.

Countries could be limited to five representatives, retaining the current limit that allows the top four in England, Germany, Spain and Italy to qualify alongside a Champions League winner from those countries which didn’t make the domestic top four.

National champions would only get four qualifying places to compete in preliminary rounds.

The changes would reduce the possibility of this season’s Champions League finalists repeating the feat under any revamp unless they were already in the competition.

Liverpool last won the English league in 1990 and Tottenham triumphed in 1961 – long before UEFA expanded Champions League entry beyond domestic champions in 1997.

While Liverpool is a five-time European champion, Tottenham has now made its first final in its fourth-ever season in the Champions League since 2010, having only previously played in the European Cup in the 1961-62 campaign.

Both teams relied on dramatic second-leg comebacks to reach the June 1 final in Madrid, while English rivals Arsenal and Chelsea made the Europa League final on May 29.

“This season’s Champions League and Europa League semifinals shows that those are by far the best club competitions in the world,” Ceferin said. “Exciting matches, fantastic football and thrilling ends. At the same time there’s a lot of hostility in the media from some stakeholders about an idea for changing the competition.”

Ceferin was still president of the Slovenian federation when the last significant changes were made to the Champions League, just before his Sept. 2016 elevation to the UEFA leadership. At the time, Ceferin denounced a secret deal that saw Spain, Germany, England and Italy exert influence over UEFA to gain 16 of the 32 Champions League group-stage places.

“In 2016, there was no consultation process and changes were made without consulting the stakeholders,” Ceferin said. “Now we even don’t propose any changes yet but we have already started to consult and share the ideas.”

UEFA president Ceferin re-elected, won’t be FIFA ‘yes man’

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ROME (AP) Promising European soccer leaders that he won’t be a “yes man” for FIFA’s expansion plans, Aleksander Ceferin was re-elected as president of UEFA for four more years on Thursday.

Ceferin’s keynote speech ahead of his win by acclamation sent clear messages to FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who was sitting in the front row watching his toughest opponent in soccer politics. Ceferin has been blocking FIFA from making a $25 billion deal to create and revamp international competitions.

“It is often the `yes men’ who lure leaders to their demise,” said Ceferin, who has faced down Infantino in testy FIFA Council meetings in the past year. “And conversely, it is often those who disagree in a measured, reasonable and constructive way, even if they sometimes do so in a direct, uncompromising fashion, who do them the greatest service.”

Infantino has promoted the secretive offer from private investors, widely reported to be fronted by Japan’s SoftBank, to revamp the Club World Cup and create a global Nations League tournament.

Ceferin said disagreeing with friends “when we think in all humility that they are wrong” helps stop them from making mistakes.

In his acceptance speech, Caferin said he wanted UEFA to be a “source of constructive ideas to FIFA instead of one of opposition.”

Other key targets through 2023 outlined by Ceferin were a European bidder winning the 2030 World Cup hosting rights and updating the financial fair play rules which monitor club finances.

The two-day UEFA gathering in Rome has been a rare meeting of Ceferin and Infantino ahead of a FIFA Council session next month in Miami, where FIFA’s aim to approve the new competitions deal seems unlikely.

While long-standing UEFA-FIFA tensions have continued with two leaders, both first elected in 2016, Ceferin spoke warmly of another ally. Juventus president Andrea Agnelli has helped stave off the Club World Cup plan and is key to protecting the Champions League as UEFA’s prize asset.

Ceferin said while he leads UEFA and Agnelli heads the influential European Club Association “there will be no Super League. It is a fact.”

Breakaway threats by elite clubs have often arisen ahead of periodic talks to change the Champions League’s entry list, format and prize money distribution.

“The only thing great about you would be your past,” Ceferin cautioned clubs, saying teams following through on breakaway threats in 2016 “would have lost their status as great clubs in the hearts of the people.”

FIFA has tried to woo storied clubs with the promise of tens of millions of dollars in Club World Cup prize money. European soccer officials fear that would devalue the Champions League and widen a wealth gap which can unbalance domestic leagues.

In his own eight-minute speech, Infantino spoke of FIFA wanting to innovate and debate ideas. Still, he gave no update or detail on the $25 billion offer which is going through a FIFA-appointed task force and meetings of member federations worldwide.

Ceferin acknowledged being relatively unknown when he was elected to replace Michel Platini, the France great who was banned by the FIFA ethics committee for financial irregularities. The lawyer from Slovenia said he had moments of doubt and made mistakes since taking office in September 2016.

“A leader without doubts,” Ceferin said, “is a delusional and dangerous leader.”

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

VAR coming to Champions League in February; Pep “delighted”

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Video Assistant Referee makes its UEFA Champions League debut in January, so supporters of Manchester United, Manchester City, and maybe Spurs and/or Liverpool can rest assured they have a lesser chance of seeing an unjust exit to the competition.

[ MORE: Pep explains Aguero absence ]

UEFA boss Aleksander Ceferin said implementation is ready quicker than expected. From UEFA.com:

“We are ready to use VAR earlier than initially planned and we are convinced that it will be beneficial for our competitions as it will provide valuable help to match officials and will allow to reduce incorrect decisions.”

Pep Guardiola was asked about the development during his Monday briefing ahead of a Tuesday match at Watford:

“I am delighted with it. The Premier League is the last one and sooner or later it will happen. The second goal against Shakhtar was a ridiculous penalty. With VAR, we are looking to make better decisions most of the time. The referee won’t always do a good job. Everyone makes mistakes but with this we can correct them in three seconds.”

We imagine most of his 15 peers in the knockout rounds will agree with this assessment (at least until VAR overturns a referee mistake that hurts their clubs).

UEFA Nations League “even more successful than we thought”

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For Aleksander Ceferin, the UEFA Nations League was an overwhelming thumbs up.

Across the continent, skepticism seems to have been replaced by positivity as European soccer’s latest innovation replaced many unpopular friendly games in a busy calendar.

“The Nations League is even more successful than we thought,” Ceferin, the president of UEFA, said after group play ended Tuesday.

Most Nations League games were taken seriously and some, like the Netherlands’ dramatic comeback draw against Germany on Monday, provided real drama. What initially appeared to be a complex format started to make sense.

The competition involves all 55 European national teams, playing in small groups and separated into four tiers using promotion and relegation. A champion will emerge from a Final Four after a mini-tournament in June.

The Nations League will also award at least one place at the 2020 European Championship to one of the lowest-ranked teams on the continent.

A look at the Nations League’s impact:

With World Cup finalists France and Croatia failing to win their groups – while Spain, Germany and Belgium also missed out – the Final Four in June will take place without several top teams. Instead, the surprise lineup of finalists includes Portugal, England, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Can Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo win another trophy? That’s if he plays, of course. The Juventus forward, who will be 34 in February, has been absent from international duty since the World Cup and faces a rape allegation in the United States.

Kathryn Mayorga filed a civil lawsuit in September in Nevada claiming Ronaldo raped her in his Las Vegas hotel room in 2009. Police reopened an investigation into the allegation at her request. Ronaldo has denied any wrongdoing.

Will Harry Kane-led England capture its first international title since the World Cup in 1966? The debate over whether winning the Nations League would genuinely end the title drought will ramp up in the coming months but coach Gareth Southgate will view it as another important step for a young team which also reached the World Cup semifinals.

Is this the start of a new, exciting era for the Dutch after the dark days when they failed to qualify for the 2016 European Championship and the 2018 World Cup? Highly rated youngsters Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt are key members of the team and Memphis Depay is seemingly fulfilling his potential.

Can Switzerland, which hasn’t reached the quarterfinals of a major tournament since 1954, continue to upset the odds after ousting Belgium in group play? The Swiss will be the outsiders.

The Final Four, as well promotion and relegation in the four leagues, are easy enough to understand. However, the Nations League is also a backdoor into the 2020 European Championship.

That’s where things can get confusing.

There will still be a typical European Championship qualifying campaign, but 16 teams get a second chance through playoffs.

In spring 2020, the 2018 Nations League results will be dusted off as the qualifying criteria for the playoffs, handing places to the four best-placed teams from each Nations League tier who missed out in qualifying.

Currently, that means Kosovo is guaranteed a playoff spot but World Cup champion France isn’t – although the French are almost certain to qualify for 2020 the usual way.

Europe’s smallest teams finally have something to play for.

The likes of Georgia, Macedonia and Kosovo usually spend their time scrambling to organize barely watched friendlies. The Nations League gives them meaningful games and, since all three won their League D groups, a shot at qualifying for a European Championship – something that’s normally all but impossible.

Gone are the days when several of the tiniest nations waited years to earn a single point. The Nations League division system means UEFA’s smallest member, Gibraltar, was playing comparable opponents and earned two rare wins, while Luxembourg came within four points of winning its group.

No change for perennial struggler San Marino, though. It still lost all six of its games without scoring a goal.

The games may be exciting, but they’re rarely sold out.

There were more than 20,000 empty seats in Gelsenkirchen for Germany’s dramatic 2-2 draw with the Netherlands, while Tuesday’s game between World Cup quarterfinalists Sweden and Russia was roundly criticized for its flat atmosphere even though promotion was at stake.

For Scotland’s 3-2 home win over Israel – a promotion decider billed as the host nation’s biggest game in a decade – Hampden Park was less than half full.

That shows that some European soccer fans have been slow to fall in love with the new Nations League format, though the old friendlies weren’t always crowd pleasers.

FIFA is sure to be watching, since president Gianni Infantino – formerly of UEFA – is looking to build a worldwide Nations League clone.