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Exclusive Interview: Gianni Infantino

On September 19, UEFA will decide which 13 cities across Europe host Euro 2020. SportBusiness International Deputy Editor Owen Evans met UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino to get his take on the opportunities and challenges for the new event set-up.

Security, excessive travelling and unifying 13 cities and cultures into one event identity are just a few of the challenges that await UEFA president Michel Platini and his colleagues during their planning for Euro 2020.

Just a few hours before last month’s Super Cup final in Cardiff, Gianni Infantino was in the process of dealing with his latest multi-cultural problem.

“Welsh is very different to English,” he said with a smile upon meeting at the Welsh capital’s Hilton hotel. “It has taken me less than a day to learn this.”

It is the sort of problem he will encounter more and more once his Executive Committee votes which 13 cities from 19 bidders will host Euro 2020. The final decision will be taken on September 19 in Geneva.

All corners of the continent are in the mix, from Azerbaijan to Belarus and up to Sweden, meaning the sheer number of issues facing UEFA over a three-week event will be unprecedented from an event management perspective. And knowing the linguistic nuances between UK bidders Wales (Millennium Stadium) and England (Wembley Stadium) is just the tip of the iceberg.

Some of the industry’s leading experts believe a pan-regional hosting blueprint combats the escalating cost of holding sport’s biggest showcases, and UEFA 2020 could prove to be a formula for the likes of FIFA and the IOC (International Olympic Committee) to follow in the future.

However critics believe it will be impossible to unify all the hosts to make fans feel they are at one tournament, while others believe weight of the carbon footprint is out of kilter with the modern-day mantra of sports hosts trying to be as ethically responsible as possible. There’s also the matter of damage to a fans’ wallets, should they wish to follow their country’s progress around the continent. 

These are not problems going unnoticed by Infantino and his colleagues. But with regards to the travel issue, he believes fans are going to find it easier getting from major capital cities such as Copenhagen and Rome than the Euro 2012 fans did travelling to the outer reaches of Ukraine at the last European Championship.

The stadium question is usually the most important.

“The logistical challenges are to organise an event in 13 different countries with 13 different legal systems and involving I-don’t-know-how-many languages,” Infantino told SportBusiness International. “So I think making all these different cities and pieces of the jigsaw work together and creating the same level of enthusiasm will be the major challenge.

“I have seen already from the bidding documents that some of the cities seem far more enthusiastic than others – maybe because some haven’t hosted major sports events before, while some of the other bidders are more established. We will need to make this feel like one big Euros throughout the entire continent.

“We see the potential for some challenges such as the amount of travel involved. However, through the amount of travelling we do at UEFA, we have seen that this is not a real issue, because it’s often more difficult to get to cities in different corners of one country than it is going from one major capital city to another. The connections between capital cities in Europe are rather good.”

Sky-High Ambition

It seems Infantino’s attitude to some of the issues is to fall back on the old business adage, every problem is an opportunity, and as a result they are using the increased travel commitment under the 2020 blueprint to open up new commercial revenues.

An official airline partner for the 2020 event is one, and discussions have already taken place between Infantino and some of the continents leading airline carriers.

“We are already talking about that at a preliminary level with some airlines,” he says. “It is appealing to them, but naturally they want to wait until we establish which 13 cities will be the confirmed hosts.

“If I were the CEO of an airline and I had some interest in Europe, it would be ideal [as a brand partnership] as the whole European football world will be tuned into the same event for a month. For an airline looking to make a name in Europe, in particular, it is very good option.

“We like to innovate. We could create [a partnership] that involves the Euro qualifiers or the Nations League [the new tournament that will replace most international friendlies from September 2018], as we are always looking for new ways and models to commercialise our events.

“Our ‘Road to the Final’ concept can be exploited in much bigger commercial scale when you involve the Nations League and qualifiers. We have 54 countries in Europe so there is a lot of room for a specialist airline partner to take advantage of that.”

Old Friends, New Plans

UEFA’s lead with the airline approach is something that Infantino wants to see the governing body’s major partners follow.

Some Euro 2012 sponsors found they could not carry out the same activations in Poland as they could in Ukraine due to the language differences, while others had problems with staff mobility due to the fact that one host had European Union status and one did not.

“We have been speaking to our sponsors about this and we are always looking to see how we can improve our sponsorship programme around the Euros,” adds Infantino. “Besides the fact that it is a challenge to activate in lots of different countries, it is also an opportunity for our partners as well, as they can get across with a major promotion of their products in one big shot. And that’s not only through broadcast coverage this time, but also on-the-ground activation as the 2020 Euros will take place in so many host cities.

“Of course, it will be challenging for the sponsors, but one of the main issues we had in Euro 2012 was that we had some cities that were really hard to access. But with the 2020 format we will have 13 cities in 13 countries and all of them will be easy to access, with excellent airports and accommodation for sponsors to take advantage of.

“We have a new formula of event that opens the door to new types of sponsorships and partnerships.”

The Final Countdown

Like UEFA, Euro 2020 bidding cities are trying to exercise innovation.

England’s Wembley Stadium and Germany’s Allianz Arena were the only two to bid to host the semi-finals and final package as well as the group stage. However, reports that emerged as SportBusiness International was going to press suggested the German and English national associations were discussing a deal whereby the Germans would drop out of the semi-final and final race and into hosting the group stages, leaving Wembley to take care of the business end of the tournament.

In return, the report stated that Germans would focus on a fully-fledged bid for Euro 2024, presumably with the English Football Association’s support.

“I have never seen the Germans give up on anything when it comes to football,” says Infantino. “We have, of course, had discussions with the associations but I have not heard of any proposal like this.

“I don’t know if it is a reality. The fact is that this is a serious process and each bidder has had to send in government guarantees and so on, and we have received all these documents. But any bidder can pull out right up to the vote.

“I’m sure there are discussions within the associations about their positioning [in the bidding process], or if the Germans are going to bid for Euro 2024, but all that is quite far away.

“It’s very good for us as Munich and Wembley have bid for both sets of packages, so even if this happened, neither would be fully dropping out which means we are in a very comfortable position.”

SportBusiness International Silver subscribers can access the full article, which also includes a round-up of the bidding cities, here.

 

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