European soccer body UEFA's handling of Russia and Rubiales invites scrutiny on values and process

By Isaac M October 2, 2023

A reputation built over decades that European soccer body UEFA is the good guy compared to FIFA as a cartoon caricature villain is being tested in this tough season for off-field politics.

The perception dates back at least 25 years when UEFA president Lennart Johansson lost to Sepp Blatter in a FIFA leadership election where stories swirled of alleged $50,000 payments to some voters.

In recent years, UEFA and its president since 2016, Aleksander Čeferin, were praised for blocking projects — a secretive $25 billion deal for new global competitions, biennial World Cup, European Super League — either pushed by FIFA or discreetly supported by its president Gianni Infantino.

Now UEFA values are being questioned on issues where FIFA has publicly stood firm — Russia and Luis Rubiales, the now-ousted Spanish soccer federation president.

“I am sad,” veteran former UEFA official Lars-Christer Olsson told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “I think UEFA stood for something which was fair and also consistent. That is not the case anymore.”

UEFA was silent for 10 days about Rubiales’ conduct toward Spain players at the Women’s World Cup final on Aug. 20. UEFA seemed unhappy to lose him as one of its six vice presidents until his inevitable resignation while already suspended by FIFA. Rubiales is under criminal investigation in Spain which Čeferin called illogical.

On Tuesday, UEFA unexpectedly announced it wants to relax an international ban on Russian teams imposed jointly with FIFA days after the country invaded Ukraine. UEFA aims to have Russian boys and girls playing in under-17 European Championship qualifying groups that start this month.

That decision predictably opened a split inside the UEFA executive committee meeting and across Europe since. It was made one day after further reporting by British daily The Guardian questioned UEFA’s handling of an inquiry into near-fatal security failures at the 2022 Champions League Final in Paris.

“The principles of the institution are not protected,” suggested Olsson, the UEFA chief executive at the end of his fellow Swede Johansson’s 17-year presidency through 2007. Olsson returned to UEFA as an executive committee (Exco) member from 2018-21 representing European leagues.

The Russian issue was not in a UEFA news release about the Exco agenda published five days ahead of the meeting in Cyprus. Nor was there a post-meeting news conference for the third straight time this year.

A UEFA statement Tuesday quoted Čeferin saying Russian men’s and women’s teams stay excluded until the war is over but that by banning children “we directly discriminate against them.”

UEFA has since declined to comment on questions about the new Russia policy and progress toward reintegrating the youth teams.

At least 12 of the 55 UEFA member federations this week stated or repeated their refusal to play Russian teams. They include Ukraine but also England, Poland, and Wales – home federations of UEFA vice presidents, respectively, David Gill, Zbigniew Boniek and Laura McAllister — and Romania, where federation president Răzvan Burleanu is a UEFA delegate to FIFA’s ruling council.

Gill, the former Manchester United CEO, was praised by his former Exco colleague Olsson as one who “always based his opinion on principles.”

When the war started, Poland was next due to play Russia’s men but refused to go to Moscow for a men’s World Cup qualifying playoff, saying it “would be a denial of solidarity with the Ukrainian people.”

Later at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, UEFA, FIFA and several member federations including Poland and Sweden teamed up to beat a Russian appeal against the ban.

A key argument was that UEFA and FIFA have a duty to organize safe and efficient competitions which risked “irreparable and chaotic” harm if Russia was included and opponents refused to play.

That is still happening, though the German soccer federation now says its U17 teams can face Russia.

“If a broad coalition of countries would threaten to boycott the competition in which the Russian youth team is engaged then UEFA would probably backtrack to the original situation,” sports law academic Antoine Duval told the AP.

Reaction to UEFA’s move should be keenly watched by the International Olympic Committee. It wants individual Russian athletes to qualify as neutrals for the 2024 Paris Games but advised in March no team sports should be allowed.

Reaction in Sweden also is intriguing. UEFA’s first vice president Karl-Erik Nilsson supported the pro-Russia decision Tuesday before the national soccer federation he led for more than a decade repeated its opposition.

The Swedish federation, which is due to host the girls’ U17 Euros for UEFA in May, did not respond to a request for comment.

Scrutiny on UEFA is increasing and Duval suggested a pattern in legal decisions, including in Financial Fair Play monitoring of club finances, for taking a pragmatic path.

“It’s quite long on principles and quite short on courage to enforce them,” Duval said, “and that might be reflected in a number of situations.”

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

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