Football clubs may invest in foreign teams

Top British football clubs are examining ways of taking cross- shareholdings in leading continental teams in a move which is likely to anger many football fans but please investors.

The idea of European clubs owning shares in each other is intended to limit the risk to investors of backing just one club and could pave the way for a series of marketing, merchandising and television deals binding them together.

It comes as more leading European football clubs, encouraged by UK-based fund managers, prepare to join their British counterparts in the rush to go public.

Stock market sources said yesterday that Juventus, owned by Fiat, the Italian industrial giant, was looking to gain a listing in London. Juventus, the European Cup holders, would join Italian rivals Lazio and Fiorentina, who last week confirmed plans to float on a foreign stock exchange.

Paris St Germain, the French side owned by satellite broadcaster Canal Plus, is also coming under pressure from UK financial institutions to float on the Paris bourse.

Earlier this week PSV Eindhoven, the Dutch club controlled by electronics giant Philips, signalled its intention to gain a share listing to match the financial power of leading British and Italian clubs.

City sources said they were convinced that cross-shareholdings were a viable way of spreading risk in a sector where the share prices of quoted clubs gyrated with the results of almost every game.

"The portfolio approach makes it more likely you will back a winner than if you put all your eggs in one basket," said a banker advising a leading Premier League club. "It would work like a football fund."

But fans reacted angrily to the idea of cross-shareholdings. "This is anathema," said Richard Kurt, a football writer and Manchester United supporter. "It's just not on if United play Barcelona and they both own each other."

Talks about taking cross-shareholdings in European teams are still at an early stage, but are being driven in part by English and Scottish football association rules that bar one club from buying control of or taking a stake in another.

But British football authorities admit teams such as Celtic, Manchester United and Newcastle United are free to invest abroad. "There is nothing in our rule book that would prevent that form of investment," said Mike Lee, a spokesman for the English Premier League.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to overcome is the potential conflict of interest involved if teams with common ownership play each other. Transfer policy between the clubs would be another controversial area while the European Union's competition authorities would almost certainly investigate any financial alliance between the clubs.

Apart from cross-shareholdings other forms of co-operation between clubs are being examined. For example, Manchester United has discussed the possibility of a cross-merchandising deal with AC Milan and Juventus whereby club kit, souvenirs and memorabilia would be sold in each other's shops.

As more clubs go public they are coming under increasing pressure from shareholders to maximise returns. Top clubs such as Manchester United and Newcastle, which is due to float before Easter, are keen to grab a larger slice of the money that is pouring into the game through television deals, sponsorship and merchandising.

Leading British teams are also jockeying for position ahead of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB's planned introduction of 200 digital television channels by the end of this year, up to 60 of which are likely to be pay-per-view sport and films. A pay-per-view trial involving a Premier League championship decider could be launched near the end of this season.

Earlier this week Fergus McCann, Celtic's executive chairman, spoke of his frustration with the restrictive Scottish league. Talks, he said, had taken place about Celtic gate-crashing the more lucrative Premier League but these had come to nothing.

Mr McCann and other leading football figures, including Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and former Liverpool captain Alan Hansen, believe the creation of a European super league is only a matter of time.

The FA's ownership rules also bar individuals from being a director of more than one club or holding more than a 10 per cent stake in another club.

Barcelona

Owner: The club's fans

President: Jose Luis Nunez

Stadium: Camp Nou

Capacity: 115,000

Honours: Spanish league champions 14 times

All Spanish football clubs are owned by their fans. There is a move to change this, and incorporate the clubs as limited companies. Barcelona voted against any such change.

PSV Eindhoven

Owner: Philips, the electronics giant

President: Bill Maeyer

Stadium: Philips

Capacity: 30,000

Honours: Dutch league champions 13 times

Fellow Dutch club AZ Alkmaar also indicated this week it plans a listing on the Amsterdam stock exchange if it gets permission to build a new stadium.

Paris St Germain

Owner: Canal Plus, the French TV channel

Presidents: Pierre Lescure and Michel Denisat

Stadium: Parc des Prince

Capacity: 48,712

Honours: Holders of 1996 European Cup-Winner's Cup

Canal Plus is in the process of merging with Dutch pay-TV group Nethold.

Juventus

Owner: The Agnellis, who also own the Fiat

car company

President: Vittorio Chiusano

Stadium: Delle Alpi, Turin

Capacity: 71,012

Honours: European Cup champions 1996

Rivals Lazio are majority-owned by Cirio, an Italian canned foods company. AC Milan are part of the Berlusconi Fininvest empire and Pirelli owns 12 per cent of Internazionale.

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