Aigner exits with a threat for England

Champions' League final: Uefa chief spells out danger to clubs as well as country after Milan take a place in history
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He had publicly wished for "a game to be engraved on the memory'' as his last Champions' League final after 34 years working for Uefa, and if Wednesday's stalemate at Old Trafford was never quite that, Gerhard Aigner will have other memories in abundance to sustain him through retirement from 31 December.

The period since 1969, when Aigner left the Swiss watch-making industry, has been a momentous one for European football's governing body, encompassing struggles against hooliganism, a proposed Super League, the Bosman ruling, political interference and Fifa. Little wonder that the amiable German will be happy to leave his handsome chief executive's office overlooking Lake Geneva and spend more time with his young family.

The Uefa football family has grown in size and influence as political boundaries have been broken down, and now encompasses 51 countries and 200,000 clubs. The suspicion is that Aigner rather regrets growing so far away from the grass roots he once inhabited as a midfielder with VfB Regensburg in southern Germany and then, after injury, as a referee.

A genuine European, he worked in England, Spain and Switzerland and was about to take up a position with BMW when attracted by an advertisement for an administrative job at Uefa. That was in October 1969, when the European Cup was a competition for national champions played over two legs, the European Championship finals involved four teams, and crowd trouble was something that went off on rare occasions in South America.

Within five years, Tottenham supporters in Rotterdam had introduced it to Europe, a trend that seems certain to dog Aigner to the end of his career. Speaking in Manchester on the day of the final last week, he felt obliged to warn that English clubs, as well as the national team, face expulsion from European competition if there is any repetition of the scenes that have left scars across the continent, from Rotterdam in 1974 to Bratislava last autumn, via cities like Paris, Madrid, Turin and - of course - Brussels.

Asked about the worst experience of his time at Uefa, Aigner does not even mention the word "Heysel'' or 39 dead Juventus supporters but simply refers to the year in question. "1985 sticks out,'' he said. "It will stick out even when I am no longer with Uefa. I hope we never have to ban English teams again, but of course we are prepared to take the steps needed.

"This is a last resort if the executive committee feels a protective wall has to be built up against a problem we cannot control. We have to work hard to protect the competitions and protect football.''

He is supportive of the Football Association in not taking any fans to Turkey or (almost certainly) Macedonia next season, but admits: "The FA can only distribute tickets or not. Even then they can be sold to somebody else. The European Union wants to sell them on the free market. We're not allowed to restrict them, so we have to keep our fingers crossed they're not going into the wrong hands.''

That hints at a constant bugbear - unwanted political intervention in football, which he decried thus in last week's match programme: "The EU has to accept a heavy responsibility for some of the current trends. Sport has not been well served and the judicial people have been allowed to take over. In many instances they have failed to do justice to sport.''

Aigner feels strongly that the Bosman ruling favoured the biggest clubs in allowing them to secure the best players without paying adequate compensation, and he says the latest challenge is to prevent them signing up "children", which in EU countries can be done from the age of 15, "though the club must have an education programme in place''.

Similarly, he regrets the end of Uefa's so-called "three-plus-two'' formula limiting foreign imports which, although unpopular with English clubs (because Scottish, Welsh and Irish players counted as foreigners), was designed to encourage youth development. "It was a step to decrease the impact of capital investment. Part of a club's quality must be due to coaching young players. We are working at the moment on a formula for how we do it. What we are exploring is a formula for home-grown players and having a certain number of them registered for European competitions.''

Too many games for the best players, whatever their age and nationality, is, Aigner agrees, a serious problem; one that he has to approach warily, since Uefa have been responsible for expanding the original European Cup with its nine games for the finalists to 17. That was in response to the threats of a European Super League, which reached a height in the early Nineties as television became an increasingly dominant influence and clubs like Silvio Berlusconi's Milan began to create about being eliminated after one round. The possibility of a breakaway became a real one, and had to be forestalled by the new format for club competitions, which is still being refined.

Next season the Champions' League will change again, Uefa having reacted with surprising speed by abolishing the second stage of group matches and thereby reduced the number of match days to 13. The sop to clubs may be to introduce a league system for the Uefa Cup, with eight groups of five teams - which will hardly have them queueing round the block at Anfield.

More legitimate is the quarrel with Fifa over the latter's Confederations Cup. "We're disturbed by these competitions because there's no space for them,'' Aigner said. "I don't think our relations with Fifa are poor. We are conscious of trying to improve things. If something is not right, we should find better ways of doing it. That's our responsibility.''

And other regrets? He has a few: "Looking back over the years, the change that I find most difficult to assimilate is the commercialisation of the game. Money has become a major motivating element, and it doesn't always motivate in the right direction. Greed has become a much more common denominator in all walks of life. It's a shame. OK, we still see some marvellous football, but I find it difficult to accept that you produce a great team by buying it rather than building it.''

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