PARIS – French President Emmanuel Macron angered the head of European football on Tuesday by using a speech at a FIFA reception to denounce a proposal to transform the Champions League into a largely closed competition.
Macron’s criticism at an opening event for the Women’s World Cup was delivered in front of UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, who told The Associated Press it was “clear interference of politics in sports.”
Macron’s comments, based on Ceferin’s account, echoed a public intervention by the French leader earlier Tuesday when he urged UEFA to abandon the concept being championed by elite clubs determined to lock in their positions in the Champions League from 2024.
The media was not invited to the reception and the address by Macron at the Grand Palais in the French capital.
“During his speech he was mentioning UEFA and saying that we should be careful about changes of the Champions League and that solidarity is important,” Ceferin told the AP from the event. “The president’s speech was a clear interference of politics in sports which surprised us very much.”
Under a proposal presented by UEFA to European leagues last month, 24 out of the 32 teams in the group stage would retain their Champions League places for the following season as promotion and relegation are introduced into three tiers of continent-wide competitions.
“It’s not so important that the changes might happen or not and that nothing has been decided yet,” Ceferin said. “The important thing is that we will not allow politics to dictate us how we govern the sports. And since the president was mentioning solidarity, UEFA is the only football organization in Europe that distributes solidarity funds all over Europe. So we know well what solidarity means.”
The proposal to overhaul the competition has been challenged by leagues across Europe and French soccer federation Noel Le Graet. They argue the concept could diminish the status of domestic competitions and make it harder for clubs from smaller leagues to earn a place in the group stage of the Champions League.
Macron’s first intervention on the Champions League changes came earlier in the day during a visit to Clairefontaine, the France national team’s base near Paris.
“We must defend our model, our clubs,” Macron said, “and I think it’s not a good idea to sacrifice the viability of our model for the benefit of some at the European level.”
France is home to one of football’s biggest-spending teams, with Paris Saint-Germain breaking the game’s transfer record to sign Neymar in 2017 for 222 million euros (then $262 million).
“We have often denounced the fact there is so much money in football and particularly men’s football in recent years,” Macron said. “I am at the side of President Le Graet to defend the French model and avoid reforms that would lead to the worst.”
Macron was speaking after meeting France players and coaches who are preparing for the start of the Women’s World Cup in Paris on Friday.
Ahead of kickoff, FIFA and its regional confederations are meeting in the French capital where Infantino is preparing for his uncontested re-election on Wednesday.
A look at talking points around the meetings:
Get ready for a spate of soccer events in China.
First up could be staging the inaugural edition of FIFA’s revamped Club World Cup, which expands to 24 teams in 2021.
China is already sure of hosting the 2023 Asian Cup after being confirmed Tuesday in Paris.
And Asian Football Confederation President Sheikh Salman then said he wants the continent to unite behind a single candidate to host the 2030 World Cup, which probably means China.
“It is one of the biggest markets,” said Sheikh Salman of Bahrain. “You look at the sponsors, and you look at the investment they have done.”
His stand echoes UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, who wants only one European bid to avoid diluting support.
Europe has 55 of the 211 FIFA member federations and Asia has 46.
An expected European contender is a combined project from the British and Irish who held their latest bid project meeting at a hotel across the street from Asian soccer’s base this week in Paris. South America plans a coalition of Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay, the original World Cup host in 1930.
FIFA has not announced a timetable for bidding and the vote.
African champion challenge
There were protests outside the hotel where African soccer officials are staying this week.
Supporters of Tunisian side Esperance were demanding that the Confederation of African Football upholds their team’s controversial victory in the African Champions League final last week.
Esperance won the showpiece last week when Moroccan club Wydad Casablanca refused to continue playing because their equalizing goal was disallowed and no video replay was available. The players had not been told the video system wasn’t working.
After a long delay, Esperance was awarded the Champions League title and earned a spot in the 2019 Club World Cup.
But the CAF executive committee was discussing the incident and the outcome of the game.
“We are here to put pressure on them and to say that the decision on the field has to be confirmed,” said Mehdi Ghandri from Esperance’s Paris fan group.
African presidential turmoil
Infantino urged African members to “find solutions, not problems” amid allegations about the conduct of the continent’s soccer leader.
Confederation of African Football President Ahmad, who uses only one name, has been accused by former secretary general Amr Fahmy of bribing heads of soccer associations and misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“I know there is a certain amount of turbulence,” Infantino told a CAF meeting. “I would urge you at this difficult point to always keep your cool and keep the spirit of solidarity.”
AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in Paris contributed to this report.
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