‘I had to leave’: concerns raised over state of Uefa amid cronyism claims

The Champions League final on 28 May between Liverpool and Real Madrid, hosted by Uefa at the Stade de France in Paris, promised to be a gleaming showcase for the heights of European football, culture and heritage. The final was the first held in a full stadium since the pandemic and since the elite competition was saved for Uefa – the confederation of Europe’s national football associations, including the English FA – from last year’s “super league” breakaway attempt by 12 top clubs.

But the near-disaster that enveloped the 75,000 attending the match instead exposed a nightmarish mess of calamitous planning, disorganisation, brutal French policing and crime in the deprived Saint-Denis area. In the fallout, and outrage at the efforts by Uefa and the French authorities to blame Liverpool supporters, closer scrutiny has since turned on the performance of Uefa itself under its president, the Slovenian lawyer Aleksander Ceferin.

Related: Uefa pre-prepared Champions League final statement blaming ‘late’ fans

The spotlight quickly turned to the appointment last year of Ceferin’s best friend, Zeljko Pavlica, as Uefa’s head of safety and security. For this vital role, bearing overall responsibility for the most prominent European matches in stadiums with huge crowds, Uefa undertook no formal recruitment process when the widely respected departmental head, Kenny Scott, retired. The Paris horror-show was the first Champions League final with a full stadium since Pavlica took over.

The Guardian then reported that a safety consultant, Steve Frosdick, had resigned from Uefa in February complaining, among other criticisms, that the safety department had become corroded by cronyism.

Uefa points to a range of significant achievements since Ceferin was elected president in 2016, but since the Paris final the Guardian has talked to many people currently and formerly involved in European football who have also raised serious concerns about Uefa’s governance. They have described Ceferin’s regime as autocratic, a culture in which the president’s personal alliances are increasingly significant, which risks undermining professionalism at a uniquely prestigious European institution.

Many point to the arrival soon after Ceferin’s election of another Slovenian, Luka Zajc, to head the president’s office at Uefa’s headquarters on the banks of Lake Geneva. He appeared to some senior people a fierce ally for Ceferin, rather than an obvious choice for a senior administrator.

Zajc, latterly Uefa’s head of corporate affairs, was also a criminal lawyer, a partner in Ceferin’s law firm, founded in Lubljana, Slovenia’s capital, by Aleksander’s father, Peter.

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Some insiders formed the view then that although Ceferin is prominent in his home country and has something of a hard man image, famously with a black belt in karate, he felt some insecurity at his elevation to the Uefa presidency, with its huge Europe-wide responsibilities and profile.

Quite early into the Ceferin regime some highly qualified and experienced people began to leave, including Alex Phillips, one of relatively few British staffers, who at the time was head of governance and compliance. Phillips feels so strongly about the issues that he is one of few who still work in football prepared to speak out publicly.

Related: How the Champions League final descended into chaos – visual investigation

“For me, it’s true, as Uefa constantly says, that football is for the fans and the players,” he says. “That means it’s crucial to protect that ethos with strong governance. But personal politics did become more important over time and there was a nervousness among staff to stand up for the right policies.

“It was becoming more cronyistic, and that was one of the reasons I left; it was going in the wrong direction.”

Pavlica was first appointed to a permanent role at Uefa, as a security adviser, in November 2016, two months after Ceferin won the presidential election. Professionally, Pavlica’s expertise and experience had been personal security, fulfilling that bodyguard role for the president of Yugoslavia, then Slovenia, Janez Drnovsek. He began working as a safety and security officer at the Slovenian FA shortly after Ceferin was elected president there in 2011 and in 2014 went on the roster for work at Uefa matches. The pair had been close friends in Ljubljana for decades and have remained so; Ceferin was best man at Pavlica’s 2018 wedding.

Uefa has said it was unnecessary to have a wider recruitment search or professional benchmarking of Pavlica’s suitability when he became head of department, because he had the requisite expertise and was the “natural successor” to Scott, having worked closely under him for several years.

However, some within the football safety industry dispute that, arguing a background in personal security involves a very different set of skills from those required to organise safety in stadiums. Some have also pointed to the much smaller scale of matches in Slovenia, a minor country in football terms, whose national team’s Stozice stadium has a capacity of 16,000.

The “independent review” Uefa set up after the Paris chaos will lack credibility if it does not convincingly address such questions over Pavlica’s appointment to the role and whether he and Uefa’s safety department did all that is expected in the pre-match planning and on the night.

Uefa has said it sincerely apologises “to all the fans who had to experience or witness frightening and distressing situations that evening. No football fan should be put in that situation, and it must not happen again.” It has also said it will not comment on issues relating to the final until the review has been completed; its report is expected by the end of November.

Another standout appointment from Ceferin’s close circle is in the fraught area of financial regulation, where Uefa’s diplomatic balancing act, needing to enforce its rules while keeping the big clubs happy, can be most explosively tested. The “financial fair play” rules, designed to stop clubs and their billionaire owners overspending on players’ wages, are supervised internally by the club financial control body (CFCB), whose panel members are appointed to act independently of Ceferin and Uefa’s administration.

They clearly did so in the most notable disciplinary case brought for alleged rule breaches, when banning Manchester City from the Champions League for two years in February 2020. However, when City appealed to the court of arbitration for sport (Cas), Uefa did not succeed in defending the CFCB’s decisions, which the Cas panel overturned.

Since that controversy most CFCB members have resigned or reached the end of their terms. Among the new appointments, in 2019, was a Slovenian judge, Petra Stanonik Bosnjak. Although Uefa does not provide biographies of panel members on its website, or publicly declare any connections, she appears to know the Ceferins well, working in the same small legal world of Ljubljana.

Marko Bosnjak, understood to be her husband, now a judge at the European court of human rights, was a prominent lawyer at the Ceferin family firm. There is a photograph published online of Petra Stanonik Bošnjak and Marko Bošnjak, with Peter Ceferin, enjoying the 2014 Ljubljana festival of classical music.

A Uefa source said Petra Stanonik Bosnjak and all the new CFCB members are highly professional and competent in administering the financial regulations, which have recently been revised.

However, Miguel Maduro, a European legal expert in football governance, argues that Bosnjak’s apparent “close personal proximity” to Ceferin undermines the important perception that the CFCB is independent of him and the Uefa administration. “Even if she is very competent, the appointment means that decisions are always susceptible to being interpreted as not immune to the influence of the Uefa president,” he said.

There is also a perception among some involved in European football that the Uefa administration has come to include a disproportionate number of people from Slovenia and the Balkans, at times, again, without a recruitment process opened up to talent from all over Europe. Examples include Ales Zavrl, now the head of club licensing, an important role, who was the general secretary of the Slovenian FA when Ceferin was the president, and followed him to Switzerland.

Last year, Noel Mooney, an Irish administrator who was head of Uefa’s “Grow” programme, which helps national FAs with strategic development, left to become chief executive of the Welsh FA. He was replaced by Ilija Kitic, another formerly at the Slovenia FA with Ceferin. Kitic and Zavrl are generally well-regarded in football as competent professional administrators, but there was apparently no open recruitment process for their roles either.

The criticism that Ceferin’s Uefa has a culture of personal alliances is not restricted to appointments from his home circle, but to others that appear rooted in football politics. One example of alleged political preferment that comes up repeatedly in conversations is that of Michele Uva, former chief executive of the Italian FA, which was a significant supporter of Ceferin’s presidential candidacy.

Uva’s elected term as a Uefa vice-president on the executive committee (exco), effectively Uefa’s board, which carried a 2020-21 salary of €250,000 for the part-time role, ended in October 2020. He was appointed to a senior staff role shortly afterwards, despite no evident specialist expertise, as director of football and social responsibility (FSR). Covering anti-discrimination, refugee and other social initiatives, it is a core part of Uefa’s work, given the modern-day emphasis that big business sport must demonstrate that it operates sustainably and for the public good.

The then head of FSR, Patrick Gasser, was a very experienced specialist, having worked for Uefa for 22 years, starting in 1999 on a programme to develop eastern European FAs. Before that he had worked for 13 years for the International Committee of the Red Cross, in troubled areas all over the world, including Croatia during its civil war, Afghanistan, Iraq and Rwanda.

Gasser was due to retire this year, but when Uva was suddenly appointed last year as the FSR director above him, he stepped down, at some personal cost.

As he has left Uefa and is now retired, Gasser was another of the few football figures who felt able to talk on the record about the culture he experienced. “I was told officially that Ceferin himself nominated Uva for the position,” he said. “There was no search for the best person; I would gladly have helped with that.

“A president is a chairman-style strategic role that should not be involved in recruitment in this way. In my 20 years this was the first time somebody stepped from the exco into the administration and he was rewarded with a directorship.

“I decided I had to leave; I would lose my integrity if I played the game and accepted it – especially in the role of football social responsibility, where ethics is everything. To me it was an unacceptable act of nepotism.”

The Guardian contacted the individual people referred to in this article at their Uefa email addresses, and also asked Uefa to forward emails on to them, so that they would have an opportunity to comment. None responded except Uva. He said he was an appropriate appointment to the director position, given his experience as a football executive, and that Uefa had “upgraded” FSR:

“The topical upgrade took place in parallel to a structural upgrade, with the creation of a dedicated division, set up upon my arrival, which required the appropriate level of senior management leadership and experience (including in the European football context), which I believe I bring to the table for Uefa.

“The sign of a good manager is to anticipate and surround herself/himself with a solid team, which is what I am currently doing as we are constantly strengthening a specialised team focused on both human rights and environmental approaches specific to football,” he said.

Uefa declined to answer questions directly or confirm factual detail relating to its appointments or the criticisms of its professional culture. In a statement a spokesperson said Uefa was “genuinely disappointed by how inaccurate and tendentious” the Guardian’s questions were.

“Discussing people’s recruitment and competence without ever having a chance to meet or work with them is below the basic human and professional dignity level,” the statement said. “But if you want to take that road, kindly note that Uefa rarely hires top management through an ‘open recruitment process’, as you call it, but rather hires proven professionals based on their expertise, experience, and managerial qualities.

“This approach, fully aligned with Uefa statutes, staff regulations, and local legislation, has been used for senior roles recruitment since the early 2000s.

“People whose competence you are doubting are well-respected professionals, with the majority targeted only because of their nationality. If you ever decide to check your facts with people from football – from national associations, confederations, clubs and other stakeholders – you will have a better idea of how misled you are.”

For generations, Uefa has been regarded as a model of good governance compared with the infestations of corruption at Fifa in Zurich. Now, particularly after the horrors at its Champions League final, and the alarming instant response to blame Liverpool supporters, serious concerns about the state of Ceferin’s Uefa are starting to lap at its shores.