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Big guns spark football showdown showdown

Sports marketing giant heads for clash with Uefa over plans to buy out clubs
SPORTS marketing giant IMG is planning to buy up professional football clubs around the globe - despite frantic efforts by the sport's European governing body, Uefa, to stop football turning into a transnational industry dominated by big business.

IMG, which already owns the French club Strasbourg, is now targeting teams in Italy, Germany and even Hungary as international football moves in- creasingly from the playing field to the boardroom.

"We are currently having active discussions with clubs in Europe, South America and Asia," said Paul Smith, IMG's senior international vice-president, football division. "We think we can invest in several clubs simultaneously."

Although he would not reveal any names, Mr Smith all but admitted that Ferencvaros, Hungary's most famous team, is among IMG's targets. "The Hungarian club involved has an illustrious past, which badly needs a new injection," he said.

Hitherto, IMG has dealt almost exclusively in promoting and managing athletes such as Andre Agassi and Tiger Woods, and events such as the British Open golf championship. Mr Smith did not rule out the possibility of internal "transfers" between IMG-owned football clubs and players they represent.

"If we have a network of clubs and some of our players belong to those clubs, then clearly we could move the players around," he said.

Mr Smith said the example of Manchester United, which has become a hugely lucrative commercial venture, was partly behind IMG's plans. "We started thinking about ownership of football clubs 18 months ago. Manchester United have moved from being a sporting to a business success and that was the spur to see how we could develop our idea."

IMG's plans are bound to fuel fears that football could soon become the property of a network of global conglomerates. Uefa warned last week that it "reserved the right to intervene and take appropriate action" if more than one club was owned by the same company.

The European football body said that from next season, if two or more European clubs under common control appeared in the same competition, only one of them would be allowed to take part.

"We have to protect the integrity of sport," said Marcel Benz in Uefa's legal department. "We do not want a situation where, if two commonly owned teams are facing each other, the owner can order one of them to win in order to boost the share price."

Uefa's declaration was seen as a direct response to the expansion of companies like IMG and, more specifically, the English National Investment Company (Enic), which already controls three European clubs - AEK Athens, Slavia Prague and Vicenza - and has a stake in Glasgow Rangers.

The London-listed group said Uefa was in breach of European Union laws. In a veiled threat, Enic said it would "take any action it considered appropriate in order to protect its shareholders' interests".

English premier league officials said they sympathised with Uefa and stressed that multi-ownership could not happen in this country. This is because the Premier League rules state that, except with prior written consent, no club may "hold or deal in the securities of shares of another club".

A working party was recently set up to monitor the trend elsewhere, and a Premier League spokesman said: "We understand Uefa's position because it is not dissimilar to ours."