Pride of place in Lennart Johansson’s office at Sweden’s national stadium in Stockholm went to an award inscribed “Father of the Champions League”. The only thing he prized as highly from his 17-year tenure as president of European football’s governing body was his scandal-free reputation.
Johansson, who has died aged 89 after a short illness, was Uefa’s longest-serving president, holding office from 1990 until 2007. The avuncular, jowly Swede, backed by his German secretary general Gerhard Aigner, was the prime mover in expanding the European Cup into a lucrative new competition which was branded the Champions League. And, as he enjoyed saying – in a pointed aside against his rival Sepp Blatter, who is currently serving a six-year ban from football administration for unethical conduct – he did it without recourse to corruption.
Born in Stockholm, Johansson was eight years old when he saw the first match played by the AIK club at Rasunda Stadium in the capital’s Solna suburb in 1937. On leaving school at 15 he joined a firm manufacturing linoleum, progressing from orders clerk to chairman of the board. During his rise through the ranks he also became chairman of bandy – a form of hockey played on ice – at AIK. He followed the club’s football team avidly and held the chairmanship there too from 1967 to 1980, going on to become president of the Swedish FA from 1984 to 1991.
Johansson was elected president of Uefa in 1990, when he was also appointed vice-president of Fifa, the ruling body of world football. It was a time of great change in European football. Vast new revenue streams were beginning to come into the game from television and sponsorship, while the relationship between players and clubs in regard to contracts was rapidly changing in favour of the former.
Uefa had 32 member nations when he took over. There were only seven full-time employees, the annual turnover was 15m Swiss francs and the offices were in a suburb of Swiss capital Bern. When he departed in 2007 a staff of 200 oversaw football in 52 countries, the turnover was SFr200m and the HQ was on the waterfront at Lake Geneva.
The transformation owed much to the huge success of the Champions League. Johansson’s desire to change the original format, whereby only the champions of each country participated, provoked widespread criticism. He recalled in 2017: “Only two of us, me and the secretary general, believed in it. We met a lot of opposition, even from people within Uefa, who disliked the idea of changing the format of the old European Cup.”
The global popularity of the Champions League, along with the growth in earning power and prestige of the four-yearly European Championship for international teams which Johansson oversaw, ensured that Uefa developed from an administrative organisation to a commercial enterprise during his time at the helm.
In 1998 he challenged Blatter for the Fifa presidency. The Swiss man won, prompting Johansson to allege that his opponent “bought” votes. He lost the Uefa presidency in 2007 to the former France captain Michel Platini despite claiming he had delivered “17 years of uninterrupted success with no scandals”. Johansson’s backers included the great West Germany captain and coach Franz Beckenbauer, who called him “a man of directness, honesty and integrity”.
He carried on watching his beloved AIK even after suffering a stroke two years ago. In one of his final interviews he reflected that players’ salaries were “out of control”. As for the influence of TV, he added: “Sometimes I think things have perhaps gone too far.”
But his legacy seems assured, Platini paying tribute on his passing: “He created and handed down to the world one of its most beautiful competitions, the Champions’ League.”
Johansson, who remained honorary president of Uefa until his death, married twice and had five children. His second wife, Lola, died in 2017.
Nils Lennart Johansson, football administrator, born 5 November 1929, died 4 June 2019