LONDON – After being forced to postpone the European Championship, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin fears soccer on the continent is facing its biggest crisis ever.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought the European game to a standstill, and there is no way of knowing when the action can resume. The latest step was for UEFA, the governing body of the sport in Europe, to postpone the continent’s showcase tournament from this summer to next year.
And Ceferin knows the difficulties are far from over.
“It is the biggest crisis that football faced in history,” Ceferin said in a television interview with The Associated Press from his native Slovenia. “We all know that this terrible virus that is all across Europe made football and all life in Europe quite impossible. We knew we have to stop the competitions.”
The financial hit for UEFA from turning Euro 2020 into Euro 2021 will be significant.
“It will go to hundreds of millions of euros,” Ceferin said.
UEFA has reserves of €574.8 million ($632 million) that have been built up by being able to sell the rights to some of the most appealing fixtures in the global game. The European Championship generates around €2 billion ($2.2 billion) for UEFA from sponsors and broadcasters — companies that will also feel the wider repercussions of a virus that is bringing so much of life in Europe to a standstill.
“The economic situation in Europe and in the world will harm us as well,” Ceferin said. “It’s not only about the losses that we will have directly with postponing of the Euro, but it will affect all the economy. And now today, it’s time for unity and for deciding. And tomorrow, it’s time to start assessing the possible damages. But I still think I’m sure that we all together will finish this and come. We will come out stronger than ever.”
That could require finding a means to financially support clubs whose key sources of revenue have been wiped out by the leagues across Europe being forced to come to a grinding halt.
“We are all the same in the same situation here and we have to help each other,” Ceferin said. “When we see what kind of financial impact are we talking about, then we will see how to help. But yes, some clubs, some leagues will have serious problems.
“But you shouldn’t forget about national associations because the sole source of revenue of national associations is mainly UEFA. So it will be a bit hard in a few months or years, but we will step together. And as I said, I’m very optimistic and we will solve the situation.”
A working group will assess the financial landscape for football in Europe, while another explores solutions for competitions on hiatus — domestically and those run by UEFA like the Champions League, which has some last-16 fixtures left to complete.
“We think that postponing the Euro is the only chance to get a chance to the national leagues and to all the club competitions to finish their competitions, but also that is not sure for now,” Ceferin said. “For the competition for sure it’s the best (to complete), but is it possible, concerning the calendar, which is extremely tight? It’s hard to say.”
Moving the Euros to June 11-July 11 of next year means moving into a slot reserved by FIFA for its newly-expanded Club World Cup, which had yet to find financing or agree to a format after tensions with UEFA over the concept.
“I spoke to the FIFA president (Gianni Infantino) this morning,” Ceferin said. “I told him that it’s likely to happen, that the Euro will be postponed to 2021. And of course, it’s my opinion, and I think it’s the only possible solution, that the Club World Cup that year (2021) cannot happen.”
What might also have to change is the European Championship format. The plan, logistically challenging long before the spread of a new coronavirus, sees games played in 12 cities across 12 countries, with the semifinals and final due to be at Wembley Stadium in London.
“The plan is to have the same venues, the same cities, the same stadiums,” Ceferin said. “But if anything gets complicated, then we can as well do it with 11, then nine or less stadiums. But the plan is that everything stays the same.”
Ceferin is more certain of the need to move two other UEFA national team competitions that were scheduled around June and July 2021: the men’s Under-21s European Championship and the Women’s Euros that England was due to host.
Ceferin said it was “most likely” the women’s showpiece would move to 2022.
“I don’t think that we should cannibalize the women’s Euro with the men’s Euro just one month before,” Ceferin said.
For now, with Switzerland locking down in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, Ceferin is far from UEFA headquarters in Nyon.
“Even the expert doctors don’t know when this will finish,” Ceferin said from the Slovenian national football headquarters near Ljubljana. “We shouldn’t panic, but we should be responsible and now I think the actions that the European governments are starting to do are good. We have to respect it. We have to stay away from going out and hanging with friends. The more we will respect that, the faster the crisis will finish.”
Then it will be back to resolving the soccer disputes over the future formats of European competitions, including the Champions League from 2021, and with FIFA over its bid to have greater control of the club game.
“I don’t know what will happen concerning the football calendar, but the fact is that what I saw today is that this situation brought us together,” Ceferin said. “We saw that our ecosystem is fragile, that it’s one ecosystem, that we have to act responsibly and that we have to help each other. There is no more time for egoistic ideas. There is no more time for selfishness . . . this is a reset of the world football.”