European soccer leaders on Thursday fell squarely in line behind their powerful president, Aleksander Ceferin, by approving a change to term-limit rules that would allow him to retain his post through 2031, years beyond the organization’s 12-year term limit.
The vote, though, may have been meaningless: About an hour after winning the right to pursue a new four-year term as president of European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, Mr. Ceferin said he would not seek one.
“I’ve decided I am not planning to run in 2027,” a stony-faced Mr. Ceferin said as he read from a prepared statement. He said he had made the decision “six months ago,” after growing tired of issues ranging from leading the effort to suppress a breakaway super league to managing European soccer through wars in Ukraine and Gaza and a global pandemic.
He said he had not revealed his decision earlier because he wanted to first understand the loyalty of UEFA’s members. In recent months, several members of the governing body’s leadership had objected, publicly and privately, to any weakening of term limits.
That had raised the prospect that Thursday’s vote might offer a rebellion. Instead, it brought near-total capitulation: Only one of UEFA’s 55 member federations, England, voted no on the term-limits change.
Asked why he had not made his plans clear before the vote, Mr. Ceferin said he had stayed silent “intentionally for two reasons.
“First,” he said, “I wanted to see the real face of some people, and I saw it. I saw good and bad at once. And of course I did not want to influence the congress. I wanted them to decide not knowing what I’m telling you here today.”
Mr. Ceferin has served as UEFA’s president since winning election in 2016 in the wake of a corruption scandal that ousted his predecessor. Soon after taking office, he ushered in the term limits and other reforms as part of a suite of changes meant to prevent similar scandals from happening again.
His recent effort to weaken those limits had brought criticism — and at least one resignation — inside UEFA, and raised the possibility of a rare public backlash during a meeting of the organization’s member federations this week in Paris.
But when it came time for the vote, only England’s soccer federation held up a red card of disapproval among a sea of green cards approving the changes.
The statute change was a minor change of language but would have had a powerful effect for Mr. Ceferin by exempting his abbreviated first term — about three years — from the term-limit calculation. That would have allowed him to run for another term in 2027, and eventually serve as long as 15 years.
Mr. Ceferin’s efforts to possibly extend his presidency had alarmed his critics, who noted they went against his own statements, made shortly after being elected. In 2017, only months after assuming UEFA’s top job, Mr. Ceferin had vowed that he would serve as an example of reform by sticking to the spirit of the new rules, even if it meant stepping aside before the 12 years allowed.
More recently, though, he had become less clear about his plans to surrender his position, and his control over a billion-dollar organization that runs some of the richest and most popular sports events on the planet.
The job comes with a $3 million annual salary, luxury travel and the opportunity to rub shoulders with celebrities, political leaders and sports stars. At the same time, Mr. Ceferin has used staff appointments, hosting rights and millions of dollars in development payouts to tighten his grip on the presidency.
Given that reality, even some of his harshest critics — a small group within the 55 member federations that comprise UEFA — backed away from offering a public rebuke on Thursday. Norway’s soccer federation, for example, having failed to have the term-limits amendment unbundled from a suite of other changes, voted in favor of the new rules. So did others, including several officials who only a night earlier had privately bemoaned the risks of concentrating power in the hands of one man.
“What do you gain from saying no?” muttered the chief executive of one federation opposed to the change, but who did not want to be named for fear of angering Mr. Ceferin.
In the end, only England voted in opposition. It had little choice, after the words of David Gill, UEFA’s English vice president, from a meeting held in December had become public. In that meeting, Mr. Gill, the former chief executive of Manchester United, had clashed with Mr. Ceferin over the change, accusing Mr. Ceferin of going against the spirit of reforms he once championed.
“We were supportive of the statute changes proposed by UEFA, with the exception of one,” England’s federation said in a statement after the vote — a reference to the one on term limits. “We have recently implemented governance changes of our own and think it’s important that we are consistent in our approach.”