Gary Lineker blackened my name, claims Kewell

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The Independent Online

The Premiership footballer Harry Kewell kicked off one of sport's highest-profile libel actions by claiming that his name had been "blackened" by the football pundit Gary Lineker.

The Premiership footballer Harry Kewell kicked off one of sport's highest-profile libel actions by claiming that his name had been "blackened" by the football pundit Gary Lineker.

Mr Kewell, 26, is claiming damages after Mr Lineker, a former England football captain and current Match of the Day presenter, commented on the player's transfer from Leeds United to Liverpool.

The case, which opened in the High Court in London yesterday, promises to reveal details of the activities of players' agents in the transfer market.

Mr Kewell told the court he was "shocked and amazed" by Mr Lineker's column in The Sunday Telegraph under the headline "Kewell move made me feel ashamed of the game".

Mr Lineker's piece appeared on 13 July 2003, the week after Mr Kewell completed his £5m move to Liverpool, recent winners of the European Champions League.

The deal provoked comment at the time because Leeds received just £3m for a player valued two years before at the height of the football boom at about £25m. Mr Kewell's agent, Bernie Mandic, received a £2m fee.

In his column, Mr Lineker attacked the "disgraceful" transfer system and called for Fifa, the governing body, to introduce reforms to cut out the middle man. He said agents were "using unintelligent sportsmen for their own gain".

But, in remarks that Kewell's lawyers claim amount to defamation, Mr Linkeker also wrote the player "needs his head examined" for "happily" allowing Mr Mandic to make such a profit. Mr Lineker, who was in court yesterday, added the player had already admitted his agent had "cleverly circumvented" rules limiting approaches to potential buyers.

Mr Kewell, who appeared in court in a black suit with white shirt and tie and a single diamond earring, said he had been in Switzerland with Liverpool when he learnt of the article.

"I felt badly assaulted," he said. "I know people can criticise me for my football. But when [the allegation] comes from someone so high in the profession that you have disrespected the game that I love - that hurt me on a personal level and brought shame to me. People out there think I am a dishonest person and I am not.

"I don't want people to think I brought shame to the game or blackened the game. People might say it's newspapers and it's in the trash the next day. But I don't want people saying to my children 'That's your Dad that did the deal that blackened football'."

Mr Kewell said he had met Mr Lineker on friendly terms the month before at a golf day organised by the sports agency SFX, which has Mr Lineker on its books, and was attended by other clients including Michael Owen, Alan Shearer and Jonathan Woodgate.

Lawyers for Mr Kewell dismissed claims in correspondence from the Telegraph Group that the article was "fair comment".

Andrew Monson said: "Our case is that the defence of fair comment does not get off the ground as the central fact relied on by Gary Lineker to support his comment about the claimant is wholly untrue ... He was quite simply wrong to claim Bernie Mandic had made £2m out of the transfer deal at the expense of Harry Kewell. He was quite simply wrong to say the claimant was happy for his agent to make such a huge profit at his expense."

Yesterday's evidence provided further detail about a transfer deal which began when, to avoid bankruptcy, Leeds were selling their most highly rated players such as Rio Ferdinand, Robbie Keane, Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer.

According to Mr Kewell's lawyers, Mr Mandic began to look for a buyer after he learnt the club was trying to sell the player "behind his back".

Lawyers for Mr Kewell said Mr Mandic's fee - 40 per cent of the transfer sum - was so high because it covered work he had previously done for the player but not been paid for. It also emerged under cross-examination that Mr Mandic's Liechtenstein-based Maxsports AG had proposed to Liverpool's chief executive a deal in which Mr Mandic would have got a 50 per cent share of any reduction from the initial asking price of £7m.

Mr Kewell, 26, who had joined Leeds as a teenager from a youth team in Sydney in his native Australia, was approaching the end of his five-year deal and was highly sought after

As a life-long Liverpool fan Mr Kewell said he agreed to sign a five-year deal with the club after settling on a remuneration package that included his wages, an annual £750,000 for his image rights and £2.4m in loyalty payments.

The case continues.