Cup plans proceed despite scandal

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Explosive new evidence of systematic bribery of opponents by Olympique Marseilles - including the "buying" of European games - will have no impact on French plans to host the World Cup next year, the French football authorities said yesterday.

A four-year investigation by an examining magistrate has produced evidence of "massive fraud" by the Marseilles club under the chairmanship of the disgraced French politician, Bernard Tapie, from 1987 to 1993. The allegations, which will go to trial later this year, extend far beyond the already proven case of the throwing of a key French league game by Valenciennes in May 1993. Twenty people have been sent for trial, including the former coach of OM and France, Michel Hidalgo.

The magistrate, Pierre Philipon, says OM paid out over pounds 11m in bribes to opposing players and clubs and, in at least one case, a referee. Among the games under suspicion of being influenced in this way are the European Cup semi-final between OM and Spartak Moscow in April 1991 and a European Champions' League match between OM and Club Bruges in 1993.

The report also cites evidence that the French club, which enjoyed the most successful period of its history under Tapie, paid nearly pounds 40,000 to an Austrian referee before a European Cup game with AEK Athens in 1989. The referee, a Mr Kohl, has since died. But a Croat intermediary, Ljubo Barin, admitted that he had received the money - in the guise of payments for fictitious friendly matches - and passed it on to the match official.

The new allegations are intensely embarrassing for the French football authorities as they prepare to host the World Cup next year. The 20 people who will go on trial later this year include Tapie and seven other senior former OM officials, several intermediaries and the former president of the Mulhouse club, Andre Goerig.

A spokesman for the French football federation said yesterday that, although these were serious new allegations, "nothing is proven at this stage." Action had already been taken to ban Tapie and strip OM of their French title for 1993 on the basis of proven match-rigging.

"If something more is proven, we will take appropriate action," the spokesman said. In the meantime, he saw no threat to next year's World Cup.

The examining magistrate, M Philipon, hints in his report that the scale of the corruption in European competitions may be much wider than he was able to uncover within the limited, legal scope of his inquiry. Following the recent evidence of illegal payments and kickbacks in the transfer of players between European countries, the report casts a disturbing light on the honesty of the entire European game.

The magistrate says Tapie was ready to use any means to make OM a top club, because "the success of the club would be his personal success and would help him to become the mayor of Marseilles". Under Tapie, the club developed a "system of false billing and embezzlement" to establish "slush funds" intended to "buy certain matches, approach certain players and corrupt certain referees."

Tapie has been given a jail sentence for his part in the fraudulent activities of OM. He remains a free man because, as a sitting Euro MP, he has immunity from prosecution in France. The European Parliament has been asked to lift this immunity and will decide on his case shortly.