MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – There was an evident anger bristling inside UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin as he tried to deal with the aftermath of Sunday’s shock breakaway Super League split by 12 of Europe’s top clubs.
The always cold stare of the Slovenian had an added element of rage and his body language indicated a man ready to wage the war of attrition that awaits European football.
But despite all the signals to the contrary, the lawyer from Ljubljana insisted there was “nothing personal” for him about the bitter row.
Then he paused for a moment, jaw slightly clenched.
“Except for maybe Agnelli.”
Italian Andrea Agnelli, president of Juventus and until Sunday head of the European Club Association, has been at the centre of the intrigue which led up to Sunday’s shock breakaway announcement.
Agnelli was not just an ally for Ceferin in the always murky world of football politics — they were such close friends that the 45-year-old, a member of the dynastic Northern Italian family of industrialists, asked the Slovenian lawyer to be godfather to his daughter — a request which was accepted.
The relationship between the two was so close that some in the European game wondered if it was entirely healthy that the head of the governing body was so pally with the head of the clubs who frequently push for greater influence with Ceferin’s organisation.
The UEFA president had laughed off such opinions and indeed when he was re-elected to his position in 2019 he heralded their connection as a guarantee against a club breakaway ever occurring.
At that congress, Ceferin boldly declared that there would be no Super League while the pair were in their respective positions. “It’s not a promise, it’s a fact,” he said.
So it was not surprising that when rumours began to emerge at the weekend that Europe’s big clubs may be about to jump ship from UEFA and start their own private league, Ceferin called up his old pal.
“He told me on Saturday, don’t worry, these are just rumours. He said he would call me in one hour and then switched off his phone,” Ceferin told reporters.
They haven’t spoken since.
“Agnelli is the biggest disappointment of all. I do not want to be too personal but have never seen a person who would lie so many times and so persistently as he did.”
Agnelli did not respond to a request for comment on Ceferin’s words.
Betrayal was a theme Ceferin was to return to frequently and there appeared something cathartic in his denunciation of the 12 clubs that he called “the dirty dozen”.
“We might be naive in not knowing we have snakes close to us,” he added. “Now we do.”
“Greediness is so strong. All the human values evaporate,” he said, reflecting on the clubs who had supported his reforms of the Champions League only to walk away hours before they were due to be passed.
“I have seen many things in my life. I was a criminal lawyer. I have never seen people like that,” he said, “It is hard to believe the level of immorality of some people.”
Did he feel the clubs were never intending to sign up to the new-look Champions League?
“It is very hard to know what are the intentions of such dishonest people,” he said.
It may not have been “personal” with Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, but Ceferin still singled him out.
“Ed Woodward, he called me last Thursday evening and says ‘great reforms I fully support it… when obviously he had already signed something else,” he said.
He talked of sanctions, bans against clubs and their players, never veering from his hardline stance except to remind any wavering clubs that it was not too late to return to the fold.
But when asked if the game was now heading for a long war of attrition, he almost seemed to relish the prospect.
“We are sure that we are right and we will fight to the end. If we don’t have to fight, if some people come to their senses then I will be the happiest person.
“But if they don’t, we know we are doing the right thing. Football is not for sale and we are not for sale either – ever”.
(Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Pritha Sarkar)