STOCKHOLM — Lennart Johansson, who oversaw the introduction of the Champions League during a 17-year reign as president of European soccer’s governing body, has died. He was 89.
The Swedish soccer association said the former UEFA president died Tuesday after a short illness.
"Lennart Johansson was our biggest international football leader of all time, no Swedish has had a similar influence on football in the world," Swedish soccer association president Karl-Erik Nilsson said Wednesday. "He was deeply respected as UEFA president and vice-president of FIFA, his leadership has aroused admiration worldwide."
Johansson led UEFA from 1990-2007 and was eventually beaten in a presidential election by former France great Michel Platini.
Johansson also served as vice-president of FIFA, but lost a divisive contest for the presidency to Sepp Blatter in 1998. Blatter rejected allegations of vote-buying, and the two never saw eye to eye after that.
Current FIFA President Gianni Infantino gained his soccer governance experience working under Johansson at UEFA, rising to become general secretary.
A tribute was paid to Johansson at the opening of the FIFA Congress in Paris on Wednesday, with his photo appearing on a big screen.
"I am heartbroken by the news of the passing away of Lennart Johansson," Infantino said in a separate statement Wednesday ahead of his re-election as FIFA president. "He was a friend and an invaluable source of wisdom and inspiration.
"I will be forever grateful for having had him as the president of UEFA when I joined the organization in 2000. Since then, Lennart has always been a role model of professionalism and, more importantly, of humanity."
Johansson said creating the Champions League to replace the European Cup was his proudest achievement at UEFA. It evolved into club soccer’s most lucrative and prestigious competition, with expansion that saw non-domestic champions given the entry.
Johansson had an award inscribed: "To Lennart Johansson, the father of the Champions League" in an office he kept at Sweden’s national stadium in Stockholm.
"It’s the biggest tournament we have in football for clubs, watched all over the world. We send it to about 200 countries and if you listen to the players about their wish for the future, it’s, ‘I would love to be in the final of the Champions League,"’ he said in a 2010 interview with The Associated Press.
UEFA was also transformed under Johansson’s rule, from an administrative body into a commercial enterprise managing Europe’s top club and national team competitions. Its headquarters moved from a suburb of the Swiss capital, Bern, to a waterfront facility in Nyon, by Lake Geneva. Johansson was named honorary president of UEFA after losing the presidency to Platini in 2007.
"Lennart Johansson was a great leader of European football," Platini said. "He created and handed down to world football one of its most beautiful competitions, the Champions League."
Current UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said Johansson "was a devoted lover and servant of football, who put his passion at the heart of his life. He will always be remembered as a visionary leader, and as the architect of the UEFA Champions League, and world football will be always be grateful to him for all he has achieved for the beautiful game."
After losing the 1998 vote for the FIFA presidency, Johansson led accusations of financial mismanagement against Blatter over the collapse of ISL/ISMM, the FIFA marketing partner for almost two decades which left an estimated debt of $300 million when it went bankrupt in 2001.
He backed Blatter’s opponent, Issa Hayatou of Cameroon, when Blatter was re-elected for a second term in 2002.
Johansson opposed the creep of technology into soccer to help referees, telling the AP: "This is a game for humans and not for robots."
Johansson, born in Stockholm, always remained loyal to the city’s biggest club, AIK, which he chaired from 1967-80. He rose through the ranks of the Swedish soccer association and served as its president before becoming UEFA president in 1990. He brought the European Championship to Sweden in 1992, and the Swedish league trophy was named after him in 2001.