'Malta has two outstanding persons in Mifsud and Borg'
William Gaillard, special advisor to UEFA president Michel Platini, discusses Maltese presence at the highest level of European football, UEFA's direction under the new president and the need to maintain unity within the football family.
It is commonplace for Malta to be referred to as a minnow of European football in the international sporting media but such description does not fit our country's standing within UEFA, the governing body of European football.
For the past 13 years, Joe Mifsud, the long-serving president of the Malta FA, has been a prominent member of UEFA's Executive Committee. Last January, he cemented his strong reputation when securing another four-year term in office at UEFA.
Maltese presence in the highest echelons of European football has touched unprecedented levels over the past five years thanks to John Borg's involvement with the European Club Forum.
The Birkirkara FC international secretary is not only the chairman of the Blue Group, the cohort that pools together the lesser lights of European club football, but he is also one of 11 members on the ECF Board.
A two-day visit to UEFA's headquarters in Nyon recently exposed me to the full magnitude of the respect Dr Mifsud commands among fellow UEFA officials and employees. Borg is also held in high esteem among his fellow ECF representatives but his total commitment to the small clubs' cause has not escaped the attention of UEFA's top brass.
One could well say that Malta is like a little fighter punching above his weight at UEFA but William Gaillard, a high-ranking UEFA official, paid a glowing tribute to the work of Dr Mifsud and Borg.
"Malta has two outstanding individuals in Joe Mifsud and John Borg," Gaillard told me when I met him for an interview in his office at the house of European football.
"Coming from a small country like Malta, they (Mifsud and Borg) would have no chance of getting elected to such important posts if they didn't possess outstanding qualities.
"The presence of two Maltese men on two important bodies also shows that at UEFA, we treat everyone equally. For us, Malta is as important as France and Germany."
Gaillard also spoke enthusiastically about the improving results of the smaller nations in competitive matches.
"Teams like Malta, Cyprus and Liechtenstein are becoming hard to beat," Gaillard noted.
"It looks as if these nations have made significant strides forward, which is remarkable really given they have a very limited pool of players to choose from."
Like the smaller nations, Gaillard's star at UEFA has been on the rise since Michel Platini unseated Lennart Johansson as president of Europe's governing body of football last January.
Within weeks of Platini's election, Gaillard, who has been UEFA's Director of Communications for several years, was appointed special advisor to the new UEFA president.
In most of his public appearances, Platini has been flanked by Gaillard and was only too willing to allow his fellow countryman do the talking on his behalf.
"Keeping the football family together," was Gaillard's firm reply when asked to pinpoint the biggest challenge facing UEFA.
Not so long ago, harmony within the football family was at a premium, a situation exacerbated by the growing pressure exerted by the 18 clubs who make up the G14.
For several years, the G14 have been at loggerheads with UEFA and FIFA with their hard-line stance on a variety of key issues, like compensation for players called up for international duty, but it is not recognised by the two main football bodies.
"The G14 is made up of the elite clubs only," Gaillard said. "We could not recognise the G14 as an official organ because it's not a democratically-elected body.
"The G14 have put a lot of pressure on UEFA and national associations over clubs and players' issues but things have moved forward over the past few years.
"I really think that what the big clubs have been pushing for, has been achieved. In my mind, the G14 has exhausted its historical mission.
"Work is underway at UEFA to create an important body which will be called the Strategic Board. The time is ripe to bury the hatchet and stop taking football problems to the courts. Football-related issues should be resolved within the football family... let's stop shooting ourselves in the foot."
The approved creation of the Strategic Board, which will be made up of representatives of all stakeholders in European football, including the fans' organisations, raises hope of improved harmony between UEFA and clubs in future.
There are a multitude of other pressing issues facing UEFA, not least the growing trend of wealthy businessmen using their financial muscle to take over big clubs. Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and West Ham readily spring to mind.
"This takeover matter is a concern for UEFA but it's not a new phenomenon for football," Gaillard observed.
"In the 1950's, there were many rich people owning clubs. This was also the case in the late 19th century in England. The only difference lies in the motives of the owners. In the past, affluent people got involved in clubs to give something back to the community or because they loved football. Ownership of clubs was never about making money in those days. The Agnelli and Moratti families have become synonymous with Juventus and Inter.
"Nowadays, the scenario is quite different. We now have people who think they can make money out of football. They are investing large sums of money to buy clubs but in some cases, the money is coming from suspicious sources.
"We strongly believe that footballers should have contracts with clubs not with individuals as that would amount to slavery.
"In certain instances, the ownership of clubs and players is very blurred and that can be detrimental to football.
"UEFA is calling on the European Parliament to demand greater financial transparency from clubs."
European Club Forum
Gaillard added his voice to the chorus of approval for the work of the ECF.
"The importance of the ECF is that it is made up of clubs of different dimensions, small, medium, large and very large," Gaillard said.
"It is the only body that represents the multi-faceted interests of clubs."
The functions and objectives of the ECF are in consonance with the philosophy of Platini.
"Michel Platini has reiterated his desire to see the problems affecting football being resolved within the football family," Gaillard remarked.
"The best way to do this is by involving all the stakeholders in the decision making.
"Like Karl-Heinze Rummenigge, Platini was a great footballer who has now become the president of a big institution.
"Platini came through the youth academy of a small club before he joined St Etienne, Bordeaux and then Juventus. Having gone through the ranks himself, Platini knows well the needs of clubs of varying sizes.
"Clubs are the heart and soul of European football. Without healthy clubs, we would have no football."
Since being approved at UEFA's annual congress in 2005, the regulations on homegrown players have sparked mixed opinions and opposition from major clubs.
In a nutshell, UEFA's policy makes it obligatory on clubs to include eight home-grown players in a 25-man squad by the start of the 2008-09 season. However, the 'new' rule came into force at the start of last season with four home-grown players in the squads for Champions League and UEFA Cup matches, rising to six in 2007-08 and eight the following season.
In Malta, the regulations governing the use of homegrown players are more restrictive than UEFA's as local clubs must have eight homegrown players in their first XI at any given time.
Gaillard re-affirmed UEFA's commitment towards the full implementation of the home-grown rules.
"Our policy on home-grown players has strong support from the European Parliament," Gaillard said.
"Such system is not based on discrimination on nationality but it is aimed at encouraging clubs to invest more in the training of young players.
"We want our clubs to educate, train and field young players. We want clubs to invest more in football academies because we strongly believe that clubs also have a social responsibility.
"Clubs should strive to foster football development in the community and neighbourhoods."