Steve Menary reports on a conflict of opinions between UEFA and G-14

Vision Europe sounds like a new chain of opticians, but is actually UEFA’s attempt to address an increasingly short-sighted approach to football in the game’s commercial heartland.

The manifesto was ratified by UEFA’s 52 members at the governing body’s congress in Tallinn in April 2005, but not made public until last month. UEFA want as many women playing as men, respect for match officials and players to be ideal role models. There would also be central selling of core rights at all levels and clubs controlled by their fans.

UEFA chief executive Lars-Christer Olsson says: “Vision Europe outlines UEFA’s purpose, its philosophy, its history and its direction.” UEFA insists this direction is non-political, but Vision Europe is littered with such rhetoric as “solidarity – not charity – at all levels”.

The problem is that semi-collective deals, such as BSkyB’s arrangement with the Premier League that at least share out cash between the top clubs while jettisoning the lower leagues, conflict with the European Union’s central tenet of the free market. Solidarity in England was eradicated by the Premier League’s formation in 1992 and the FA’s response to Vision Europe’s 34 pages was muted: “We welcome the opportunity to debate these important issues raised in the document through our membership of UEFA.”

The reception elsewhere was more forthright, with Olsson’s plans backed at a recent meeting between UEFA, FIFA and Europe’s sports ministers. UK sports minister Richard Caborn pointed out that football could be exempt from some EU law if football adopts a more responsible approach. But New Labour discussing solidarity is reminiscent of Michael Foot’s leadership two decades ago and that is where Vision Europe belongs according to Thomas Kurth, chief executive officer of G‑14, the cabal of Europe’s 18 most powerful clubs.

He told WSC: “This is a vision of the past and to prolong the past and re-establish something that was only appropriate in the past. We have our own vision which is different to this. There are different levels of [European football] and the first level as it exists nowadays in football is not appropriate. There is a conflict of interest between the regulatory side and the commercial side. This conflict of interest leads to abuse. [UEFA] introduce new rules and regulations that favour the interests of the federations and jeopardise the clubs.”

G-14 wants UEFA’s regulatory and commercial roles split and discussions opened with the clubs over Champions League and UEFA Cup solidarity payments. These payments provide a minimum amount even if a club gets stuffed in the Champions League’s first qualifying round. G-14 does not want these payments abolished and Kurth insists all clubs should be involved in these talks, but says that the bigger clubs are “natural leaders”.

Vision Europe’s collective approach to sharing out cash is the antithesis of G-14’s view. In 2004, UEFA shared out €26.3 million (£18.8m) between clubs that played in the Champions League group stages, but even sides from small countries that got knocked out in the first qualifying round got at least €176,988 (£119,563). That might not sound a lot to a Premier League club, but goes a long way even in an expensive smaller nation such as Iceland. “Football is not about G‑14, and G‑14 has nothing to do with football. G‑14 is about money, nothing else,” says Omar Smárason of Iceland’s FA. “The statement that ‘Football is UEFA’s raison d’être’ is an important one. The Vision Europe document is a good reminder to everyone about what football can mean to people. There is a lot of money on offer and the bigger clubs want a bigger and bigger slice of the cake. Will it make the state of the football family stronger in the long run? I sincerely doubt it. This is where solidarity comes in. Do we care about football as a whole, or just our individual wants and needs?”

UEFA admits that many of the ideas in Vision Europe are not achievable in the short or even medium term, but at least it has set an agenda. And that agenda looks increasingly likely to be one that produces fresh conflict with Europe’s biggest clubs.

From WSC 228 February 2006. What was happening this month

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