Olsson eager for clubs to stabilise finances

Pragmatic Swede controlling Uefa backs transfer window and says game's future needs major European teams to adopt responsible accountancy procedures
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The Independent Online

The view from Lars-Christer Olsson's fastidiously tidy yet warmly welcoming office on the top floor of Uefa's modern headquarters overlooks both Lake Geneva, glorious in the winter sunshine, and the sparkling, snow-capped Alps beyond. But sailing and skiing could not be further from Olsson's mind as he settles into arguably the most high profile job in European football.

It is less than two months since Olsson, a 53-year-old Swede, replaced Gerhard Aigner as Uefa's chief executive, the public face of European football and a position his predecessor held for the best part of 15 years. Lennart Johansson may still be the president of European football's governing body but these days he occupies a somewhat ambassadorial role. It is Olsson, his compatriot and number two, who deals with the most pressing day-to-day issues and takes the crucial decisions that dictate the direction in which the game is heading.

It is a daunting challenge yet behind his pragmatic style and unmodulated delivery lies a passion to keep European football on the right track, maintaining a semblance of tradition yet not immune to change. In the privacy of his office, Olsson, a bespectacled father of three, is both engaging and forthcoming.

"There is no fundamental difference between how Gerhard and I see the game being managed and driven. He left a strong legacy and the most important thing for me now is to keep the family together which means trying to maintain the relationship between the grass-roots and the professional side." A tough call given football's widening gap between rich and poor but Olsson is determined not to let outside forces take over.

"I don't want to see American-style franchises or new European leagues infiltrating our game. There has to be some kind of bloodline, with promotion and relegation in the national leagues and qualification for Europe only being allowed through domestic club competitions. I'm of the firm belief that the top clubs have a responsibility when it comes to solidarity and the distribution of wealth downwards.

"This is perhaps my toughest challenge, making sure we have existing structures that are accepted by the different stakeholders."

With the exception, it seems, of G14. The élitist lobbying group of Europe's most powerful clubs are ever watching over Uefa to make sure their interests are being met, but Olsson bristles at the suggestion that Uefa cannot afford to sour this relationship. "I would say we have no relationship at all. We have our own European club forum, including the G14 members, and that's how we communicate with individual clubs. It's not true that the G14 dictates to us. Dictating means ordering conditions to be fulfilled and that is not the case with G14. Quite frankly, I don't feel much pressure from them."

Olsson must be the ultimate diplomat but he is clearly not afraid to express his feelings if Uefa's integrity is being undermined. Take the ongoing Welsh protest over being refused permission to take Russia's place at Euro 2004 following Yegor Titov's failed drug test. Uefa was accused of trying to save face and protect their precious tournament in Portugal. "Firstly, that's totally unfounded," Olsson said. "Secondly, perhaps we need to apply a bit of education. The decision was taken by our disciplinary body and not by the Uefa administration. For us, this is an important and strict principle. The disciplinary bodies are totally independent. Neither I not the president can intervene."

Olsson will not predict how the saga will be resolved. What he will discuss are areas he can influence directly, such as the haemorraging of cash and the massive debts being built up by many of Europe's major clubs. With the Champions' League about to resume next week, Olsson sees such profligacy as the most serious long-term danger to European football. Next season, Uefa's much-touted licensing system comes into effect, preventing any club with irresponsibly high debts from playing in either the Champions' League or Uefa Cup. Not before time, says the chief executive.

"In recent years, too many clubs have been indulging in, if you like, financial doping. Now, they will have to prove they have sound finances to play in our competitions. They won't be able to wriggle out because they will have to produce audited figures to show they have sound finances."

Serious stuff from a man with plenty of experience behind him. Ten years as general secretary of the Swedish FA, Olsson was also tournament director of Euro '92 and, for the past four years, has been director of the Professional Football and Marketing division at Uefa, overseeing the workings of Europe's clubs and leagues as well as television rights and sponsorship.

"He was the ideal man for the job in terms of maintaining continuity and smoothness," said one Uefa insider. "People may not have heard of him but they hadn't looked back far enough. He's very pragmatic but also very determined, and extremely diligent with a wonderfully dry sense of humour."

An amateur footballer for 15 years in the south of Sweden and a qualified coach, Olsson has no particular British allegiance though he has a soft spot for Celtic, with their Swedish connections, and for Chelsea, as fashionable in the 1970s when Olsson was playing as they are today, courtesy of the Russian revolution about which Olsson has mixed feelings.

"I'm 100 per cent in favour of a club being being rescued by a benefactor but there is a potential risk about having too many foreigners, both in terms of identification by the fans and in terms of youth development. It's very difficult for young players to reach the top if there is no incentive. I'd love to see a situation where half the starting 11 in every professional club is home-grown. It would have to be done gradually, with maybe two or three to start with, but we are already talking about this."

One subject on which Olsson refuses to give ground is transfer windows. Debate rages over whether the process should be scrapped, at least for domestic transfers, creating an open market. The Football League is fiercely opposed to the current restrictions but will not be encouraged by Olsson's views. "They are not addressing the real problem, which is the bad state of their clubs' finances. If you need, in the short-term, to sell players just to finance your activities, there is something fundamentally wrong in the way you are managing your club.

"Transfer windows are designed to safeguard the integrity and credibility of the domestic and European competitions. Clubs have an obligation to plan their activities responsibly and keep the squad they start with. There have been too many examples of clubs buying star players just to make it more difficult for their opponents to win. I simply don't see why we should have two systems. If we really are one labour market, it is very difficult to justify different rules."

One area he does not have to worry about is the Champions' League. The new format, with four fewer match days and only one group phase, works better than the old system, he says, representing the ideal compromise between the old straight knockout European Cup and providing revenue for the clubs involved. "The second group phase created more matches and income but also confusion among the fans," Olsson said. "On the other hand, it's now accepted that it is not practical to be knocked out of Europe's most important competition after just two games."