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A vote for progress?

It is fair to say that the movements and political machinations of the bureaucrats who run European football is not a subject that enthrals everyone.

But don't let the grey suits and monotone delivery at Champions League draws fool you; despite displaying a dull exterior UEFA's administrators wield extraordinary power over this game of ours.

If the world of football's Eurocrats is not your particular bag then you might not be aware that on Friday January 26th an election will be held in the German city of Düsseldorf to decide who becomes the next UEFA President, the next man to sit atop the ziggurat of European football's governing body and assume one of the most important positions in world sport.

There are two figures in the running: the current president, 77-year-old Swede Lennart Johansson, who is once again standing for re-election, and 51-year-old Frenchman Michel Platini, the former European footballer of the year and all-round playing legend.

So far, so dull? Well perhaps, but the outcome of the election could effect the landscape of European football for years to come, from reducing the number of clubs a country can enter into the Champions League to a restriction on the number of foreign players allowed to feature in club sides.

And if the significance of the role doesn't pique your interest then, as in all elections, there is always a subtext of animosity between the candidates to spice things up.

In fact the barely concealed ill-feeling between the two contenders is making this potentially nap-enducing election rather intriguing, with both men using the last few days before the vote to bad-mouth each other, albeit in typically polite style.

The rivalry between Johansson and Platini can also be viewed as the latest round in a grudge match between Johansson and Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, football's world governing body.

Back in 1998 Johansson and Blatter went head-to-head in the election to replace João Havelange as the head of FIFA, and therefore the man in overall control of world football. Blatter won and Johansson continued in his role as UEFA president, a position he has now held since 1990.

In the intervening years Johansson has proved to be a considerable thorn in FIFA's side firstly by refusing to cede to the world governing body's whim and latterly by positioning himself as a campaigner for financial transparency and probity, a move regarded widely as attack on Blatter himself following the scandals that have embroiled FIFA since 2002.

The animosity between Blatter and Johansson is important because Platini is Blatter's protégé (working as the FIFA president's personal advisor between 1998 and 2002) and if elected could prove to be an invaluable ally to FIFA; although UEFA is only the game's European governing body, the continent boasts the game's biggest clubs and richest heritage, and as such its power rivals that of it's world counterpart.

This not to say that Platini will simply roll over and let Blatter tickle his tummy; he is no lapdog, but rather a political man in his own right seeking election on a bold mandate. Nevertheless, a UEFA president who is sympathetic to FIFA and its leadership would make Blatter's life that much more comfortable.

So what of the candidate's manifestos? Well, there is little in the way of radical reform from either man, with conservatism being the order of the day. The key difference between the two is Platini's call to reduce from four to three the number of Champions League entrants Europe's top leagues can generate.

For his part Johansson has scoffed at Platini's suggestion that the Champions League should be tinkered with. Not only is the Champions League Johansson's key achievement from his period in office, but the competition is one of the most important and successful sporting events in the world, generating interest and revenues far beyond Europe's borders.

Taking on the Champions League might be a bold move but it could prove to be a masterstroke for Platini.

While there is little chance of returning to a true champions-only Champions League in a straight knockout format, the trickle-down effect from a reduction in size or a change in its geographic make-up would offer increased legitimacy to the UEFA Cup; a tournament more accessible to smaller clubs and crucially clubs from smaller associations who feel the Champions League is designed to best serve only a few of UEFA's larger members.

Which way the election goes depends not solely on what is being offered in the future, but what has gone before.

Many of UEFA's 52 member associations, who each get one vote in the presidential election, owe a debt of gratitude to Johansson for the work he has done over the last 16 years, particularly the larger associations.

But while the FAs in England and Germany have benefited greatly from Johansson there are others who feel their interests have been marginalised by the Swede, and it is those disenfranchised associations that Platini will hope to convince that a vote for him is actually a vote for themselves.

Other matters on the election agenda, which both men largely agree on, include engendering closer working ties with the European Union, using UEFA's financial strength to benefit national associations and the game at all levels, as well as a continued fight against racism, match-fixing, doping and the regulation of agents.

'We need to take even more effective action on betting, match-fixing and doping', says Johansson. '[And] put in place a new European-wide system of rules to regulate agents and to end the abuses which have been identified in recent years which have threatened to damage the game's image'.

Surely no-one can argue with that, but the problem of seeking election on such a mandate is that it begs a question: As incumbent president, why has Johansson not done more to address these problems during his tenure?

Then there is the uncomfortable issue of age. While the European Union is justly striving to introduce legislation to prevent age discrimination in the work place it is hard to conceive that Johansson's advancing years will not be a consideration of those voting in the election.

At 77, Johansson, who successfully overcame prostate cancer a few years ago, is already seven years older than the maximum age someone can be to sit on UEFA's own executive committee; he retains his place on the decision-making body because a place is reserved for the UEFA president.

A further four-year term in office will see him into his ninth decade. On the other hand, at 51, Platini represents a comparatively youthful figure, with many years of service ahead of him.

So which way will the vote go? Well, like turkeys voting for Christmas, national associations are unlikely to vote for Platini if it would reduce the number of their teams in the Champions League. While the Frenchman's position is entirely rational and makes a great deal of sense, in reality Germany, England, France, Italy and Spain are unlikely to be supporters.

The obvious decision for a progressive UEFA would be to elect the younger man. Johansson is a popular figure within the UEFA structure and has overseen the development of the Champions League, a competition that has taken the game to new heights generating vast revenues for clubs as well as the organisation itself, but after 16 years of dutiful service perhaps the time is right for a change.

However, with much to be lost and gained for the candidates, as well as UEFA's members, the lobbying will continue until the very last moments before the balloting begins, and as such the result remains too close to call.

  • Any thoughts? Then you can email Phil Holland.