By all accounts, Euro 2020 was a remarkable success – unless you’re Gareth Southgate anyway. Bringing teams from across Europe together, the event offered football-starved fans a chance to support their heroes after years of Covid turmoil. And whether you backed the Three Lions or the Azzurri, it was hard not to be impressed by the scale of the festivities. Encompassing 51 games, 24 teams, 11 host cities and ten host countries, the sixtieth anniversary of Europe’s premier footballing contest was a remarkable achievement. That’s similarly true financially: on TV rights alone, nearly two billion people tuned in to watch the action, with American channel ESPN paying $115m for the right to broadcast games. That was shadowed by a bewildering range of sponsorship deals, showcasing everything from blockchain to TikTok.

Yet amid the celebrations, it’s easy to forget that Euro 2020 didn’t just appear kitted out and ready to score. On the contrary, the delayed competition was planned, run and marketed by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), the continent’s supreme administrative body. And even when it’s not shepherding Europe’s greatest players from Baku to Glasgow, or else orchestrating the continent’s various club competitions, UEFA still has plenty to do. Nowhere is that truer than the finance function. From auditing member associations to transforming its own capabilities, European football would be inconceivable without unending work by UEFA’s finance team.

None of this is straightforward. With a unique funding structure, UEFA’s accounting wizards arguably have a more challenging financial model than their cousins in the business world. Nor do UEFA’s budgetary obstacles finish there. Sponsorship and other partnerships can certainly help pad the body’s accounts – securing cash for good causes across the footballing world – but the organisation must always be careful not to ignore its ethical obligations. This isn’t a mere hypothetical. Over recent years the organisation has been wracked by ethical and financial scandal. The fundamental question for UEFA’s financial overseers, then, is ostensibly a simple one: how to exploit the vast wealth of modern football while keeping the sport beautiful? The answer, it goes without saying, is far harder to untangle.

Net growth

In footballing terms, 2002 feels like a year from a vanished world. In England, for instance, Manchester United comfortably won the league, while Blackburn Rovers secured a coveted UEFA Cup spot. In 2002, that forgotten trophy was won by Feyenoord – the last time a Dutch club won a major European trophy. The strangeness continues if you examine football’s balance sheets from two decades ago. In 2002, the most valuable player on earth was Ronaldo (not that one), who was sold to Real Madrid for £40.5m. That may seem like a lot, except that in 2017 Neymar went from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain for €222m (about £185m). Beyond the figures, meanwhile, the whole atmosphere of football was different back then. This, after all, was an era where ‘it’s not for girls’ Yorkie adverts regularly graced sideline billboards, and where the women’s game was often dismissed as a joke.

There are worse people to reflect on these revolutions than Josef Koller. At UEFA since 2002, he became the body’s finance director eight years later. And as the executive explains, these upheavals have extended to his own organisation too. “When I started,” he recalls, “turnover had yet to reach the €1bn mark – today, on average, our turnover is €3.8bn.” This growth spurt isn’t particularly surprising. As today’s transfer fees and wage packets staggeringly imply, football is one of the most lucrative industries on earth, a colossus now estimated to bring in €20bn each and every year. Nor does international football seem prepared to slow down. With extravagant new owners eager to spend – and new markets like China galloping ahead – football is now easily the most profitable sport on earth.

All that, in itself, would be a challenge for an organisation like UEFA. Yet as Koller explains, his finance team has actually taken on even more work. Unlike many other enterprises, he explains how UEFA has “insourced” a number of activities over the past few decades. A good example is Euro 2004, when UEFA for the first time began organising the competition in-house. Naturally, emphasises Koller, these additional responsibilities have “required accounting, controlling and cash management processes to be adapted”. Nor is insourcing the only way that UEFA differs from its commercial cousins. Because most of the body’s income is paid back to national associations and clubs, UEFA’s “cash-flow stream” has increased considerably over recent years. This makes sense: of the €3.5bn in gross revenue the Swiss-based is expected to make in 2021-2, a full 93.5% is invested back into teams across Europe.

Nearly two billion people tuned in to watch the Euros in 2021.

Keeping score

Last summer, just as Euro 2020 was kicking off, UEFA made a dramatic announcement. Launching a five-year partnership with AntChain, a blockchain platform owned by Chinese businessman Jack Ma, the deal promised to change the relationship between technology and football forever. As Koller puts it, the collaboration aims to “explore how innovative technologies, including blockchain, can help the sports industry better develop and facilitate its digital transformation”. In more practical terms, that could mean efficiently distributing mobile tickets via the blockchain, as happened during Euro 2020, or else securely uploading goal scoring records online. That was swiftly followed by another deal, this time with Socios, a crypto firm that allows fans to pay to enter competitions and vote on certain matters decided by their clubs.

These headline declarations aren’t all UEFA is doing either. As Koller explains, his team’s digital transformation actually began around a decade ago, with the implementation of an integrated ERP system. Apart from anything else, he says the new technology “facilitated the integration of financial transactions performed by our agencies” – for instance to manage consolidation and year-end closure work. From there, UEFA has followed many businesses in embracing internal digitalisation, not least when it comes to procurement and invoice-handling. More broadly, Koller stresses UEFA’s collaboration with its member football associations and clubs. “Our accounting unit deals on a day-to-day basis with pure accounting or payment-related matters,” he says. “The exchange with our 55 member associations is greater, because we do a lot of exchanging and learning from each other. We also organise courses and educational programmes to help and support our member associations.” This is occasionally supplemented by more direct interventions. In 2019, for instance, Koller was sent to Dublin to oversee the finances of the Irish FA after it emerged that the association’s chief executive gave his employers a dubious €100,000 loan.

As this last intercession implies, Koller also needs to be conscious about UEFA’s ethical responsibilities. “Football nowadays might generate millions in income, with millions of fans following our competitions right across the globe,” he says. “However, what we must always keep in mind is the educational and social value of our sport.” That’s probably truer for UEFA than some of its peers. As recently as November 2021, Michel Platini, the body’s ex-boss, was charged with fraud, misappropriation, criminal mismanagement and forgery. And, to be fair, there are signs that the organisation is conscious of its obligations beyond Koller’s fine words. That’s perhaps most clear in the wake of Covid, with UEFA working to bolster clubs who lost out on ticket sales and sponsorships.

At the same time, Koller and his team are obviously aware that the footballing culture epitomised by Yorkie is gone forever. In particular, Koller underlines UEFA’s ‘HatTrick’ programme, which uses commercial events to fund good causes. Euro 2020 was no exception: €645m of the proceeds from the competition went towards youth and women’s football, among other underfunded areas. Women’s football, especially, is enjoying far more attention than could ever have been imagined in 2002. Apart from upping the prize money for the upcoming women’s Euros to €16m (twice the pot last time), UEFA is encouraging more women to get stuck in. A case in point is the ‘Time for Action’ scheme, which conscripts Disney characters to encourage girls to play, and funds scholarships for women to train as coaches. Given UEFA is well on the way to doubling Europe’s squad of female players by 2024, you have to think it’s money well spent.

The prize pot for the women’s Euros has doubled since 2017 to €16m.

Golden boots

Not that all UEFA’s financial arrangements are necessarily so wholesome. It may have filled the body’s coffers, for instance, but the body’s deal with Socios was sternly rebuked by some fan groups. Football Supporters Europe, to give just one example, dismissed Socios as “crypto-mercenaries,” adding that monetising fan engagement went against the spirit of football. Similar agreements have been criticised too. In 2016, UEFA was attacked after partnering with a number of Chinese and Azeri companies, both countries with dispiriting humanitarian records. And while the body said it had asked suppliers to respect UN principles, UEFA similarly declined to reveal the specifics of the contracts, citing confidentiality agreements.

In a sense, these tensions are inevitable. Especially with the rise of China as a soccer hotspot – no less a figure than President Xi himself has said he wants to turn the People’s Republic into a “football power” – UEFA will find it ever harder to keep its portfolio totally clean. That’s before you consider the increasingly frantic waltz between global sport and politics. With UEFA assailed for banning rainbow flags during Euro 2020 matches in St Petersburg and Baku, citing local rules, it’s plain the organisation will continue to face similar conundrums in future. And though he somewhat hedges on a solution, Koller is anyway aware of the problem. What UEFA needs, he argues, is to reach “a balance between topics where football can make a direct impact, and those areas where our influence is more indirect”. Equally important, Koller continues, is to appreciate that football is popular everywhere – even, he could have added, in places with laws that Western liberals find distasteful.

If he doesn’t come down decisively on either side of the debate, meanwhile, Koller equally understands that he’ll likely play a bigger role in deciding how UEFA weighs ethics and profit. “We’re a political institution,” he explains, “and people tend to be over-keen to find new ideas and development areas. Therefore, the finance division is also the financial conscience of the organisation.” That’s doubly true given broader shifts in Koller’s job description. Like countless other CFOs, he’s increasingly expected to mix old-fashioned accounting with advising colleagues on business development. It helps that Koller is clearly enamoured with UEFA as an institution. With a cosmopolitan international team at his side, and a love of football in his heart, he’s never found it hard to be a motivated manager. Hopefully by the time the next Euros roll around, in 2024, Gareth Southgate will be able to say the same.


The figure paid by ESPN to broadcast Euro 2020 games.

Sports Business Journal


The percentage of UEFA’s €3.5bn gross revenue that’s expected to be invested back into European football.