In an exclusive interview in the latest edition of UEFA Direct, the UEFA President gives a fascinating insight into his favourite football memories, shares his views on key issues for UEFA, and sets out his blueprint for the future.
What is your first football memory?
I remember watching the 1978 World Cup final on TV. I was ten years old and have great memories of that game between Argentina and Netherlands. I remember the full stadium, all the little pieces of paper that the supporters threw onto the pitch – and I remember Mario Kempes. What a player!
Did you follow football when you were younger and if so, which team in particular?
Yes, definitely. All the time. I especially followed Hajduk Split, who were one of the best teams in the former Yugoslavia in those days.
What do you feel when you enter a stadium?
Going to a stadium is always a magical experience for me. You can really feel the electricity and excitement in the air when you are there. The sights and sounds are really special.
What was the first game you ever attended?
I will never forget it. It was a World Cup qualifier between Yugoslavia and Denmark in Ljubljana in 1980. That Yugoslavian team was great and I really liked Safet Sušić and Zlatko Vujović; they were amazing players. It was funny because the stadium was completely overcrowded – they had sold too many tickets – so I couldn’t really see the pitch most of the time … there were too many grown-ups in front of me. But it was an unforgettable experience!
Who is your favourite player and why?
I would have to say that my favourite player of all time is the Brazilian Ronaldo. What a phenomenon … his technique, his physique, his natural raw talent. What an amazing player to watch. He was simply the best.
What is the most beautiful goal you have ever seen?
My two favourite goals are the incredible volley Marco van Basten scored against the USSR in the final of EURO 1988 and the amazing goal Zinédine Zidane scored in the final of the 2002 UEFA Champions League. Those are two really exquisite goals.
What has been your most memorable moment in football, as a fan or as president of the Slovenian FA?
It has to be when Slovenia qualified for the 2010 World Cup. We beat Russia at home 1-0 and were guaranteed a place in the tournament in South Africa. Zlatko Dedić scored the winning goal in that play-off. It was a great day.
Did you or do you play football? And if so, in what position?
I have always played football, ever since I was a kid. When I was in 11-a-side teams, I normally played as a central midfielder. Now I mostly play futsal with friends.
How did you become active in the Slovenian FA?
Well it’s an interesting story. In 2011 the then president of the Slovenian FA stepped down and I was approached to take over. I was told the FA really wanted someone who could come in and put some order into the organisation. They managed to persuade me to do it and the rest, as they say, is history.
A few years later you were elected UEFA President in Athens. How did that feel?
To be honest, the day of the Congress was a surreal experience for me. I had been so busy the previous weeks, travelling to meet so many people around Europe, that when I won the election, it didn’t sink in right away. It took a while for me to realise what I had achieved and it was only on my first day at the office in Nyon that I thought … “Wow. This really happened.”
Tell us about your first days as UEFA President, your first trips. How did you feel?
I felt great when I took office. Right after I was elected, I spent a lot of time meeting with many presidents and general secretaries of national associations, but also with many other stakeholders such as directors of clubs, sponsors and so on, because we need to be united and we need to be aligned in order to achieve our common goals and overcome all the challenges. I would also like to say that, regarding the people who work at UEFA, I have been really pleased to see that so many of the administrators and staff are really enthusiastic about working to promote and protect our beautiful game. This makes me optimistic that we can do great and positive things in the future.
How can your experience at the head of the Slovenian FA help you at UEFA?
My role as president of the Slovenian Football Association gave me valuable knowledge and insights into how middle-sized and small national associations work. This was very important on the campaign trail and it is very important now as well, as I look across Europe and at all the different profiles of our national associations. I feel I understand them.
What are your priorities as UEFA’s seventh president?
I want to bring the football community together through dialogue, inclusion, solidarity and gender equality. We must protect the game overall. I am talking about working on anti-doping, club licensing, financial fair play, safety and security, integrity and discrimination, while at the same time implementing good governance based on transparency and efficiency. Finally, I want to grow the sport by increasing participation in the long term through sustainable and socially responsible initiatives.
What about women’s football, what ideas would you like to bring in to help develop it?
I am committed to developing women’s football and that is why I have introduced a women’s football unit at UEFA. I feel there is huge potential for us to develop and improve this side of the game. I am also looking at ways we can improve the UEFA Women’s Champions League to get it even more attention than it draws today.
How important is grassroots football?
Grassroots is crucial to the well-being of football and I want to implement the best grassroots programme in history. In close cooperation with all the member associations, we will build a short-term, medium-term and long-term strategy to ensure that football remains the most popular sport in Europe for generations to come. And this can only be achieved by implementing a global grassroots programme to increase participation and retention.
The national associations are the cornerstone of football development. How will you work with all 55 UEFA member associations?
I will involve all 55 national associations and their active presidents in decision-making processes through a number of measures, including giving even more importance to the Top Executive Programme and UEFA committees. I think that it is only possible to achieve our common goals through open dialogue, by examining the interests of different stakeholders, analysing the broader environment and looking for the opportunities and strengths shared by our national associations. Their input is key for UEFA.
How important are the fans for the health of football?
Without fans, there is no football. Fans are at the heart of the game and we need their passion and excitement to keep the game alive. They are incredibly important for the health of football and I am very happy that so many millions of fans love our competitions.
You were not a professional player. Is it important that former players are involved in football affairs?
Yes, I feel it is important to bring the knowledge of former footballers into the administration of the game. They can offer a new perspective and I value that.
What do you think of UEFA’s club licensing and financial fair play action?
Financial fair play is working and European football losses have decreased by more than 80% since it was introduced. What is important is that the financial fair play requirements are not only applied to clubs which want to participate in UEFA competitions: they should also gradually be introduced at domestic level to ensure that clubs live within their means and are managed in a sustainable way, regardless of what competition they are in.
Finally, you once mentioned introducing term limits for Executive Committee members and UEFA presidents. Why?
I believe there should be term limits for the UEFA president and the members of the Executive Committee. There needs to be fresh blood after a while so that people come in with new ideas to foster the development of the game.