Is the UEFA president unduly interfering in the Icelandic elections? Aleksander Čeferin gives vocal support to candidate Guðni Bergsson to Icelandic media while insinuating that Iceland will struggle within UEFA if Bergsson’s opponent is elected.
By Pål Ødegård and Håvard Melnæs
On Saturday 9 February the annual assembly of the Icelandic Football Federation will among other issues decide who will be the president for the next two year term.
There are two candidates: sitting president Guðni Bergsson, the former Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers player, who has been president since 2017 when Geir Thorsteinsson decided to step down after 10 years as president. But now Thorsteinsson has decided to run again.
At a crucial time ahead of the elections, Guðni Bergsson got the most important man in European football, Aleksander Čeferin, on his side.
In an interview with TV2’s Sports Magazine, Čeferin praised Bergsson:
“I have to say, however, that I have a great respect for Guðni Bergsson. I believe he is a great leader, and the Icelandic federation has never had such good relations with the governing body UEFA as it has now, with Guðni as president.”
When asked if this means that these relations during Geir Thorsteinsson’s time weren’t that good, the Slovenian replied:
“For me it is hard to say if it was bad or not, I don’t want to judge Thorsteinsson because I don’t know him well, but the fact is that now the relations are great, I doubt if it can be any better with another solution. Everybody likes him in Europe, and trust me, that’s very important for the future development of Icelandic football because you are, like my country, a small country, but football wise, in recent years, a big country. And you should keep up the pace, that’s how you develop football. And Guðni is a great president of the football federation. Trust me, it’s not personal, for me it’s important to express what I feel, and I feel that Guðni Bergsson is a very good president and a person who sees the future of football”
Geir Thorsteinsson could hardly believe his own ears.
“The comments were so shocking that I first thought it was a joke. This is a clear abuse of power. Čeferin is one of the most powerful men in world football, and for him to interfere in a democratic election in the Icelandic football association, it’s almost unbelievable,” he tells Josimar.
Geir Thorsteinsson had been working for 25 years for the Icelandic FA, first as office manager for five years, then as secretary general for 10 years, and 10 years as president before stepping down in 2017.
“I simply needed a break after 25 years, I probably was a bit overworked. And sometimes it’s healthy to take a take break, to see things from the outside. Now I’m ready again to give my all for the benefit of the clubs and the federations”, Thorsteinsson says.
Thorsteinsson was intending to run for a seat on the FIFA council until he decided to take a sabbatical from football politics. It was speculated that the seasoned administrator backed down after UEFA implemented a new rule that you must have a position within your national association in order to apply for committee positions like the FIFA council, and that this was a move from the UEFA leadership to ensure the Russian candidate, Aleksey Sorokin, could take that place after his countryman Vitaly Mutko was declared ineligible. Thorsteinsson assures he took the decision alone, without being pressured in any way.
The comments have sparked debate in Iceland, as some see it as tit-for-tat from the Slovenian against Thorsteinsson after the latter didn’t sign a letter along with other Nordic associations in support of Čeferin’s candidature to become UEFA president in 2016. As Josimar reported at the time, this endorsement was pivotal for Čeferin’s campaign.
The question is whether the UEFA president’s statements to Icelandic media constitutes a violation of the statutes of UEFA and FIFA. In UEFA’s statutes, under article 7.2, it reads:
“Member associations shall manage their affairs independently and with no undue influence from third parties. Member associations shall provide in their statutes for a democratic procedure guaranteeing that their executive body is freely elected and that their other bodies are elected or appointed in a completely independent way. Any body or decision from a body that has not been elected or appointed in compliance with such a procedure, even on an interim basis, shall not be recognized by UEFA”
FIFA regulations states the same in article 14 and 19 of its statutes, making it clear that any influence from outside the umbrella of a national association is to be regarded as a violation.
The Nasser Paradox
The controversial comments by the UEFA president come just one day after it was announced that CEO of PSG, Nasser Al-Khelaïfi, was elected by the European Club Association (ECA) to replace the former Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis on UEFA’s executive committee. Gazidis had to step down after taking up a job at AC Milan, and in order not to violate UEFA’s statutes, which states that the two representatives from the ECA cannot be affiliated to the same member association.
The decision is to be ratified by UEFA’s executive committee during the 43rd ordinary congress in Rome on 7 February. The choice of Al-Khelaïfi raised eyebrows because of his many roles, raising questions whether there are conflicts of interest. A Qatari royalty, Al-Khelaïfi is chairman of Qatar Sports Investment (QSI), an investment fund that is basically a vehicle for the Qatari government to obtain influence through sports, and crucial to its geo-political soft power policies. Al-Khelaïfi is also officially a minister without portfolio in the Qatari government, and in addition serves on the organizing committee for the FIFA Club World Cup. Perhaps most controversially, he is also the chairman and CEO of BeIN Media Group, which are rights holders to broadcast matches from UEFA’s top leagues, plus UEFA’s international club and country tournaments, in many parts of the world.
The Qatari also has two investigations to deal with. UEFA’s club financial board recently reopened a case against PSG for suspected violations of the Financial Fair Play regulations. And in addition, Investigations by the Swiss prosecutor are open against Nasser Al-Khelaifi over suspicions he bribed Sepp Blatter’s disgraced right-hand man, Jerome Valcke, in his capacity as chief executive of beIN Sports in order to secure World Cup broadcast rights.
Javier Tebas, head of La Liga in Spain, has today criticized the appointment of Nasser Al-Khelaïfi in a statement made to the Associated Press, where he says the “appointment must be rejected as it violates all reasonable rules of governance, not only because of the Financial Fair Play file, also because he is president of BeIN Sport, one of the main UEFA broadcast rights buyers.” Tebas went on to plead for the UEFA congress to reject the Qatari. The Spaniard has earlier criticized UEFA heavily for being too lenient with PSG, questioning how it was possible for the French top club to afford players like Neymar and Kylian Mbappé for astronomical transfer fees without violating the FFP rules.
Josimar have sent the following questions to UEFA:
1. UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin has given statements to the Icelandic TV station TV2 where he expresses his support for Guðni Bergsson to become president of the Icelandic football association in the upcoming election. He goes on to clearly insinuate that Bergsson is a better choice for Icelandic football and their relations to UEFA than if Bergsson’s opponent would be elected. Wouldn’t this be considered undue interference in a local election by him, violating article 7.1 in UEFA’s statutes, and article 14 and 19 of the FIFA statutes?
2. On what basis can Mr.Čeferin claim that relations with the Icelandic FA has never been better than under Mr.Guðni Bergsson, considering that Mr Čeferin has just been president of UEFA for two years?
3. Nasser Al-Khelaïfi has just been elected by the ECA board to be their representative on UEFA’s executive committee, replacing outgoing Ivan Gazidis. Along with his role as CEO of PSG, he has roles such as minister of the Qatari government, member of FIFA’s organizing committee for the FIFA Club World Cup, CEO and chairman of Qatari Sports Investment, and especially as CEO and chairman of BeIN Media Group. PSG is currently under investigations by UEFA’s club finance board for breaching FFP regulations, and by Swiss prosecutors for possible bribes when broadcasting rights were acquired. Does this not violate any UEFA regulations regarding conflict of interest and/or integrity issues considering the importance and prestige of the position as executive member of UEFA? And if not, does UEFA consider its legal framework to be flawed and outdated in comparison to its outspoken commitment to good governance principles?