Simon Evans explains why eastern European clubs are staying loyal to UEFA despite being frozen out of the Champions League

Grey-haired sixty-somethings in conservative suits, with small badges on their left lapels, firmly shook hands, slapped backs, kissed one another on the cheeks and greeted each other in Russian. It might have been a scene from any party congress in the past five decades, but this was 1998 and the first-ever meeting of eastern European football associations.

When the Hungarian Football Federation sent out the invites to the 23 FAs from the former Soviet Bloc their aim was simple – to lobby for their joint bid with Austria to host the 2004 European Championships. But when they arrived the delegates had other things on their minds than how beautiful the mock-up of the projected 35,000 multi-purpose Videoton stadium would look. The past six months have seen east European football plunge into crisis. The club sides have performed worse than ever in the European cup competitions, hooliganism is continuing to grow from Bucharest to Moscow and, worst of all, the proposed European super league threatens their only reliable source of hard currency income.

UEFA president Lennart Johansson saw a rare opportunity to preach to the converted and score a few points against Media Partners by reinforcing the message that UEFA and the Champions League are the saviour of football in the face of rampant commercial interests. So he got on a plane with his general secretary, Gerhard Aigner, and flew to Budapest. Suddenly the Austro-Hungarian sales presentation had become a major political event in European football.

It was not a typical east-meets-west gathering. When western experts in any business come to eastern Europe they usually do three things – patronise, preach and sell. They start by telling the east Europeans things they already know about “standard practice in the west”, they explain how their way of doing things is the only way ahead in the modern marketplace and then they try to flog their particular product/consultancy/ loan/ideology.

But the western experts from UEFA spoke of “the threat of outside commercial interests”, “people who put business before sport”, the need for “solidarity”. The east Europeans, comfortable with the language of their political pasts, easily slipped into old mode. Miljan Miljanic, the president of the Yugoslav Football Federation, was lapping this up so much that he began addressing the delegates as “comrades” – no one objected. His words could have come from a Khrushchev speech in the Fifties: “The super league is a cancer, we have to bury it under the ground.” When he left the conference hall he rejected the orange juice offered by the hostess and asked where the vodka was.

What caused this unusual event was what usually brings people together – not a common interest in forging a new path ahead or a desire to share experiences but opposition to an outside threat. From UEFA’s point of view the conference was a triumph, and not only in terms of the PR value. Because in supporting the reformed and expanded 32-team Champions League, 23 of UEFA’s 51 member associations are ignoring another, more concrete, threat to their interests than the super league and allowing UEFA to push them further into the wilderness.

The new-look Champions League is, as expected, a compromise between UEFA’s obligation to provide opportunities for all European countries and the need to satisfy the financial demands of the elite clubs. Inevitably, the concessions to the German, Italian, Spanish and English clubs have been at the expense of the east European countries. While the Premiership, the Bundesliga and Serie A will have four representatives in the new league, the east Europeans, with the exception of Russia, are likely to have only one team with even a chance of making it to the group stages. The champions of Hungary or Romania will have to get through at least two knockout rounds, probably coming up against third- or fourth-placed big league clubs, if they are to qualify.

UEFA’s seeding system – quietly introduced and already in place for the UEFA Cup and the current Champions League – already discriminates against east European clubs. Obilic of Yugoslavia had a chance to compete in the Champions League this season – on paper. But they had no prospect of qualifying by an easy route such as beating the Hungarian or Romanian champions. Instead, the seeding system meant they had to defeat Bayern Munich over two legs. Bayern, on the other hand, had no need to fear a qualifier against Manchester United.

The claim of UEFA to be defending football as a sporting competition from “non-sporting principles” such as invitation-only leagues, rings hollow when they are creating a competition to which, in theory, everyone is invited, but to which some countries receive more invitations than others. And it becomes a sham when those with less invitations are automatically forced to do battle with stronger opponents if they are actually to take up the invite.

In practice UEFA are doing what Media Partners wanted to do outside European football’s rule book – ensure that European competition is the preserve of those countries with lucrative television markets and rule out the nightmare scenario of a Dinamo Kiev v Red Star Belgrade Champions League final. For Media Partners there was no pretence of equal opportunities. For UEFA the principle is one east Europeans have plenty of experience of – everyone is equal, it’s just that some are more equal than others.

So why were there no cries of outrage at the Budapest conference from the 23 former communist countries, which have spent a decade trying to attract sponsors and private capital only to see their sole chance of serious cash taken out of their reach? Why, when 23 is almost enough on its own to block any UEFA moves, are the east Europeans ready to vote for a plan which will be a disaster for their region?

There was certainly no real enthusiasm for the plan. Most officials admitted it was a choice between bad and worse. “It is a compromise, we all know that,” said Vladimir Radionov, general secretary of the Football Federation of Russia, “but at least with UEFA we have a chance to be involved.” The east Europeans are backing UEFA out of fear. They are afraid that if they were to unite with other smaller countries who stand to lose from the new UEFA plan and defeat the proposal, the big clubs would start playing with Media Partners for real. That would be a disaster for the east and UEFA know it. For all the talk of “solidarity” and “sporting principles”, the unspoken message from Budapest was clear – toe the line or you won’t even get the crumbs of the cake.

After the break with communism in 1989, east European football fans hoped that in time their clubs would at last have a chance to compete with their western rivals. No one expected wonders, but there were grounds for hope that at least a few of the big  clubs would attract enough investment to at least hang on to their home-grown talent. The TV, sponsorship and merchandising markets would gradually grow and the wealth of clubs would gradually catch up with at least the mid-ranking European football nations.

But now seeding and unequal opportunities mean eastern Europe has been officially relegated to the continent’s lower divisions and has scant  hope of ever earning promotion. With little realistic chance of playing in the Champions League the clubs will attract fewer sponsors, the players will be more likely to move abroad at the first opportunity and the standard of the domestic leagues will continue to decline. At a time when the European Union is seeking to bring the former communist countries in, driven by the logic that a prosperous and democratic east is good for the west, UEFA is creating a new iron curtain.

From WSC 142 December 1998. What was happening this month

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