Zvonimir Boban, a top aide and longtime confidant to the powerful president of European soccer’s governing body, resigned abruptly on Wednesday, a departure that laid bare a deep rift inside the leadership of one of the world’s richest sports organizations.
Mr. Boban’s sudden exit from the governing body, UEFA, which oversees soccer in 55 nations and organizes billion-dollar competitions like the Champions League and the European Championship, signaled growing disquiet among some of the continent’s soccer leaders at efforts to significantly change the organization’s rules.
One of the most contentious revisions under consideration would allow UEFA’s president, Aleksander Ceferin of Slovenia, to remain in his role beyond a 12-year term limit imposed as part of a suite of reforms enacted after a corruption scandal that shook international soccer almost a decade ago.
“Despite having expressed my deepest concern and total disapproval, the UEFA president does not consider there to be any legal issues with the proposed changes, let alone any moral or ethical ones, and he intends to move forward regardless in pursuit of his personal aspirations,” Mr. Boban said in a lengthy statement sent to The New York Times.
Mr. Boban’s exit from his role as UEFA’s first director of football, a position created for him in 2021, made public growing tensions among some of European soccer’s top leadership. Those concerns have been festering since a board meeting in Hamburg, Germany, in December when the suggestion of tweaks to the term limits of senior leadership were first proposed.
News media reports at the time said David Gill, a longtime English soccer executive, publicly questioned the need for the changes. He pointed out that the shift essentially exempts any time served on the executive committee before July 2017 from the term limits. That would potentially allow a figure like Mr. Gill to stay in his post for 20 years, something he argued would be at least against the spirit of the original governance reforms. Mr. Ceferin, a lawyer, was first elected UEFA president in 2016.
UEFA dismissed concerns about the alterations in a statement, saying, “The proposed change is to simply clarify the position established in the statutes with regard to preserving the accepted legal principle that retroactivity should not apply.” UEFA, which said Thursday that Mr. Boban left “by mutual agreement,” and Mr. Ceferin did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the circumstances surrounding his exit.
Mr. Boban, 55, is widely considered to be one of the greatest midfielders of his generation, a winner of the Champions League with A.C. Milan and a starring member of the Croatian team that took third place at its first World Cup in 1998 — less than a decade after the country won independence.
After retiring as a player, he held executive roles at FIFA and his former club in Milan before joining UEFA, where he held an outsized role because of his proximity and close personal friendship with Mr. Ceferin.
He was by the president’s side in 2021 when news broke that a group of elite clubs were trying to create a breakaway super league that threatened to blow up the decades-old European soccer model, and he worked closely with Mr. Ceferin to help see off that threat. But Mr. Boban is also known for being outspoken: He previously took aim at his former employer, FIFA, and his former boss there, Gianni Infantino, after his departure in 2019.
Mr. Boban said he now had “no option but to leave UEFA.” He informed Mr. Ceferin of his decision to quit on Wednesday.
Mr. Ceferin, 56, the former head of Slovenia’s soccer federation, was a largely unknown quantity when he was elected UEFA president in September 2016. He has since has grown to become one of the most dominant leaders in the sport, controlling an organization that generates more money than any international body of its type through the Champions League, the top club competition in sport, which produces nearly $4 billion in annual revenue. It also runs the quadrennial European Championship, the second largest national team event after the World Cup.
Mr. Ceferin’s sudden ascent was accompanied by moves to curb executive power in soccer after a corruption scandal, something Mr. Boban, one of his closest allies, noted in his statement.
“Ironically, it was the UEFA president himself that proposed and launched a set of reforms in 2017 which were introduced to prevent such a possibility,” Mr. Boban said. “These rules were designed to protect UEFA and European football from the ‘bad governance’ which for years had unfortunately been the ‘modus operandi’ of what is often referred to as the ‘old system’ of football governance.
“The reforms were to football’s great credit, and that of the UEFA president. His shift away from these values is beyond comprehension.”
Being party to the changes, he wrote, “would go against all the principles and values I wholeheartedly believe in and stand for.” Mr. Boban added. “I am not trying to be some sort of hero, especially as I am not alone in my thinking here.”
Mr. Ceferin has insisted the changes to the term limit statutes are in effect nothing more than housekeeping matters and an effort to clarify language. But he has not said whether his current term, which ends in 2027, will be his last. If UEFA’s membership approves the rules changes at its annual meeting in Paris next month, many insiders expect Mr. Ceferin to stay much longer.