Soccer-Ceferin set to guide UEFA through key period for European football
By Brian Homewood
ZURICH, Feb 5 (Reuters) - European soccer boss Aleksander Ceferin is set to be re-elected unopposed at a UEFA Congress in Rome on Thursday, putting him in charge for four years which could see fundamental changes to club football on the continent.
The Slovenian lawyer will face a delicate balancing act as he attempts to find a middle ground between Europe's big clubs and the rest, who fear being left behind by their richer peers.
Europe's biggest teams are pushing for drastic changes to the region's club competitions, including the flagship Champions League, so they can play each other more often.
UEFA is already looking ahead to the cycle beginning in 2024, and the European Club Association (ECA) has said it wants a model that will increase the number of clubs participating and guarantee more matches for all.
ECA chairman Andrea Agnelli, the president of Italian champions Juventus, and Ceferin have agreed to work together, although they have not given any more details on their plans.
Agnelli suggested in an interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper last year that the 32-team group stage in UEFA's Champions League could be arranged into four groups of eight rather than eight groups of four.
Such a model would leave less space for domestic matches, but Agnelli suggested that teams playing in the Champions League be allowed to field a number of under-21 or under-23 players in their home leagues. He added that he was just "brainstorming", but it nevertheless gave an insight into how the big clubs may be thinking.
UEFA currently enjoys a near-monopoly on competitions involving top European clubs, but that position is also under threat: FIFA president Gianni Infantino wants to introduce a four-yearly 24-team Club World Cup and says his plans are backed by an investment consortium willing to put in $25 billion over 12 years in return for 49 percent ownership of such a competition.
The FIFA Council agreed in October to set up a task force and lengthen the consultation process after solid opposition from UEFA and Europe's domestic leagues put Infantino's plans on hold.
Meanwhile, the pre-season friendly tournament organised by U.S.-based Relevent Sports and involving top European clubs continues to grow.
After starting out with eight teams in 2013, last year's edition featured 18 sides and saw matches played in the United States, Singapore and various European venues. Each team played three matches and all were then ranked in a single league table based on their results.
Ceferin was elected in September 2016 to replace Michel Platini after the former France midfielder was banned by FIFA for ethics violations. Platini has denied any wrongdoing.
Since then, Ceferin has argued that closing the financial gap between a handful of top clubs and the rest -- the so-called "competitive balance" -- is the biggest challenge facing European football.
To help achieve this he suggested salary caps, a luxury tax, squad limits and reforming the transfer system, among other measures.
However, he has struggled to find concrete measures that would allow, for example, the champions of Switzerland or Serbia to compete on more equal terms with teams from England, Spain, Germany and Italy in the Champions League.
"Times have changed and we are planning some reforms, but I can't tell you exactly when that will be," he said, adding that even the big clubs appreciated the problem.
"It's clear (to them) that the competition only between the big ones will not happen and would be very boring."
"They understand that for the development of football, they have to share some money." (Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Hugh Lawson)