Lennart Johansson, who has died aged 89, was president of Uefa, the European football association, for 17 years, from 1990 to 2007, during which time he oversaw its growth from an organisation with seven employees and a tiny annual turnover into one that employed 200 people and controlled vast riches. He regarded his greatest achievement there as being the transformation of the European Cup – which previously involved just the champions of each European league – into the Champions League, which took in many more of the top teams and generated far greater revenue.
He was also at the helm when Uefa had to deal with the 1995 Bosman ruling, which belatedly brought freedom of contract into football. Widely seen as a man who wanted to keep football close to its grass roots, even though he was responsible for bringing huge amounts of money into the game, he complained after Bosman that players’ salaries had spiralled out of control, and regretted the fact that big European clubs had switched to buying ready-made stars rather than developing their own youngsters.
Johansson’s period at Uefa was regarded as sound and honest, and as a respected and trusted figure in European football he was the clear favourite to become president of world football’s governing body, Fifa, when he stood for election in 1998. However, to general surprise and some consternation, he was beaten by Sepp Blatter, at that point Fifa’s general secretary.
Johansson’s failure was a source of regret to many, not least because he had talked of trying to deal with ongoing corruption at Fifa, particularly in relation to the hosting of World Cups. “The days when the president and the general secretary ran Fifa to suit themselves are over,” he had predicted, when it had seemed he was heading for victory. “Committees must no longer be formed by the president. We must have only people on these committees who are clean and who are untouchable.”
Alas he was tilting at windmills, and with the election of Blatter, Fifa proceeded, in due course, to the shabby fiasco of choosing Qatar, a tiny state with no football history, to host the 2022 World Cup. Of Blatter and his ally, the previous Fifa president João Havelange, Johansson said: “If the price I have to pay to win is to behave like them, then I refrain. Then at least I will leave with my self-respect.” Which indeed he did.
Johansson had done little campaigning in the belief that “my track record could talk for itself”. Afterwards he said: “I was angry for three days, then I decided that a man of my age should have the sense to step down and be pleased with what he has achieved.” Nonetheless, he continued as Uefa president for a further nine years. He was eventually replaced by Michel Platini, who, along with Blatter, was later banned from football for eight years by Fifa’s ethics committee.
Born in Stockholm, Sweden, Johansson began his working life at the age of 15 as an order clerk for Forbo Forshaga, a firm that made linoleum. He worked his way up the business, becoming successively sales manager, managing director for 12 years and, finally, chairman of the board. Simultaneously he became involved in the administration of AIK Solna, a sports club in the district of Stockholm in which he lived.
Initially he worked with the part of the club that played bandy, a Swedish game similar to ice hockey, and rose to be its chairman. In due course, however, the football section of the AIK club asked him to be their chairman, which resulted in his subsequent appointment as chairman of the association of Swedish football clubs. That led, in 1967, to his election as president of the Swedish football association and thence to the top job at Uefa.
Mindful of the extent of corruption in football administration, Johansson was at pains to point out that he received only expenses for his football administration roles until Uefa began paying him a salary in 2000. Before that, and during his first 10 years at Uefa, he lived on his private pension savings.
From 2001 onwards, the trophy awarded to the Swedish football champions was named the Lennart Johansson Bowl in his honour.
In retirement he spent more time at home in Sweden, much of it fishing. He was made an honorary president of Fifa, which allowed him to continue travelling around the world to pursue his lifelong interest in watching football.
Johansson’s wife Lola, whom he married in 1981, died in 2017. He had five children.