Fifa’s statement on UEC meeting reveals hidden meaning behind football’s current governers

Following a meeting with the Union of European Clubs, Fifa’s statement meant to reaffirm their relationship with the European Club Association instead raises questions about where power lies at the top of the game

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Tuesday 28 May 2024 19:49 BST
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(EPA)

On Tuesday evening, Fifa released a brief statement that would have baffled any fans who looked at it, but actually said a lot about the power in the game. The global governing body was essentially forced to publicly explain a “meeting” - Fifa’s own quotation marks - with one group that is representative of smaller clubs, while reasserting the strength of its relationship with the European Club Association, which is the biggest group representing clubs.

It can be read here: https://inside.fifa.com/about-fifa/organisation/news/fifa-clarifies-context-and-substance-of-exchange-with-union-of-european-clubs.

Before that statement, barely anyone knew about a meeting held between Fifa and the Union of European Clubs, which seeks to offer a voice to over 140 clubs who do not feel sufficiently spoken for at the top of the game, including Crystal Palace and Osasuna. That meeting actually covered a serious issue, essential to the very existence of some members. The Fifa Clearing House has still not distributed up to €140m of payments that are due to teams for the development of players who were later sold on. Many of these clubs are in hugely difficult financial situations, and so are extremely dependent on the money.

An irony is that the Fifa Clearing House is generally seen as a “long-awaited step forward” in the global body’s attempts to reform the transfer market, in this case ensuring fair compensation for talent development. A problem has been that the system is “too complicated and too demanding” for the clubs that it was intended for, which is precisely why €140m has not yet been distributed. This is what UEC met with Fifa over, in order to make some recommendations on how it could work and stress the issue, while discussing other related regulatory issues specific to smaller clubs. The ECA are actually working on the same situation for their own clubs, who have also been affected by the issues with the Clearing House. It is described as a “mess”, from administration to some of the legal complications. There is a lot of work to be done. The statement comes over how it evidently required two representative bodies to be involved.

That’s also where it gets complicated, and how this apparently innocuous statement indicates so much about the future of football.

The ECA is the body that grew out of the old G14, which was basically the grouping of the most powerful clubs in the game. That evolved to represent clubs playing in European competition, but was for a long time led by the biggest powers, particularly Manchester United and Bayern Munich. That was at least until the Super League crisis, which saw many such big-club executives forced to resign, and ultimately resulted in Paris Saint-Germain’s Nasser Al Khelaifi become chairman of the group. The ECA have also sought to expand to bring more clubs under its umbrella, although this involves a tiering where many members do not have full voting rights. The last elections ensured the board was made up of representatives from clubs as varied as Atletico Madrid, Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Bayern Leverkusen, Celtic, Roma, Young Boys and Legia Warsaw. While the ECA has become more diverse, it is still seen as being run by the big clubs at the behest of the big clubs. The increasing influence of state-owned clubs, in the form of PSG and City, has been noted by many stakeholders in the game.

President Nasser Al Khelaifi addresses the General Assembly of European Club Association in Budapest
President Nasser Al Khelaifi addresses the General Assembly of European Club Association in Budapest (EPA)

Before that, in March 2023, Fifa renewed its Memorandum of Understanding with the ECA. This agreement was recognised in Tuesday’s statement, where Fifa said it would “like to take this opportunity to state for the record that it recognises only one single interlocutor and counterpart representative body for club football in Europe, that being the European Club Association”.

This is despite the fact, as illustrated by the very meeting with the UEC in the first place, many clubs do not actually feel fully represented when it comes to these discussions. Some are desperately dependent on the Clearing House money, and required proper representation to bring this issue forward.

And yet, the game’s notional ultimate power felt it had to publicly explain this “meeting” - again, their own quotation marks - while essentially boosting the ego of the ECA.

The optics are strange, to say the least. It is a highly curious state of affairs.

The Independent has asked both Fifa for more context about the statement. It is understood some in the ECA were put out by social media posts, which were felt as if it looked like the UEC were claiming recognition by Fifa.

The biggest question here is what this illustrates about how power works in modern football. Why are Fifa signing such memorandums, when they are supposed to represent and regulate every element of the game? Why is a body like the UEC even needed in the first place, if the interests of clubs are supposedly looked after?

There’s also a wider context, given the direction of the club game. The current ECA has actually strengthened its power in the wake of the Super League crisis, with the fall-out from that still seeing the highly-debated “Swiss system” Champions League voted through. Given this new format will guarantee more games for the biggest clubs and involves a mammoth league stage, it is viewed as simply an institutionalised Super League. A Super Champions League, if you will.

The nature of the relationship means the ECA almost become de facto organisers of the competition. Similar is meanwhile expected to happen with next year’s inaugural new Club World Cup, where Fifa is desperate to attract the big clubs in order to guarantee its commercial viability. That in turn ensures more money can be distributed to the voting member associations.

This all comes as a number of leagues - including the Premier League, who have members among the UEC - talk of legal action against Fifa about the Club World Cup in the current football calendar.

It is why that mere 146-word statement said a lot more than intended.

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