Dein to reveal his Euro League plan

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The Independent Online
GLENN MOORE

Football Correspondent

Having been late for both the World and European Cups it seems English football intends to start the next revolution in the international game, the European Super League.

That is the assumption to be drawn from the mood of part of England's delegation to today's meeting of European football's governing body, Uefa, in Geneva. David Dein, Arsenal vice-chairman and a council member of the Football Association, yesterday declared, before he flew to Switzerland: "We are going with the express intention of tabling our view for the future on European competition. Incorporated in that will be the formation of a European league system."

While Dein stressed that it should run "parallel to our domestic league" such a creation would clearly have severe repercussions domestically, especially for the Coca-Cola Cup.

Although Dein thought a European league was "imminent", it is just one of a series of proposals under debate in Geneva where, as befits the city of Rousseau, revolution is in the air. Not that the philosopher would have approved of many of the changes in mind, the ancien regime is under threat, but from the rich, not the poor.

Today's meeting, in the ultra-expensive La Riserva hotel, is Uefa's attempt to forestall an independent European league, backed by television and run by, and for, the clubs. The meeting has the potential to shape the destiny of the European game into the next century.

As well as a European league, the agenda includes expansion of all three European club competitions, a reduction in size of domestic leagues, a pan-European winter break and a move to play all internationals at weekends. Only a few of these come from Uefa.

In recent years Uefa has embarked on a policy of aggressive expansion. In the international arena it is taking on the sport's world governing body, Fifa. Within its own region it has shown a growing inclination to interfere and influence: as with the Intertoto Cup, the restrictions on foreign players, and various attempts to reduce the size of domestic leagues.

This has not been popular with either the clubs or national associations. In the past they have been able to do little about it, Uefa and Fifa threaten to ex-communicate anyone who challenges them through the courts - as the Welsh exiles have found. Now, however, the Bosman case has exposed Uefa's claim to be above the law. That, together with enormous sums of money from television, has empowered the clubs. Two decades ago, Kerry Packer showed it was possible to play top-class cricket outside a governing body. More recently, the Australian Rugby League has found itself on the margins of its own sport.

While rugby league, a relatively impoverished game, was taken over by Rupert Murdoch, football's big clubs are wealthy enough to ensure any link with television is a partnership.

Top European clubs have been making informal contact for some time. The Premier League have met their counterparts from Spain, France and Italy - Rick Parry, the chief executive, has recently illustrated the point by wearing a Juventus club tie. Post-Bosman they decided to hold a broad- based meeting, at which point Uefa decided, in the words of one FA official, "to head them off at the pass".

Uefa invited the 12 European associations who have been represented in at least three European finals to Geneva. Each association, which include the FA and SFA, could bring up to three clubs with them.Representatives from Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, Rangers, Celtic and Aberdeen have been invited to Geneva with Graham Kelly and Bert Millichip, of the FA, Parry and SFA officials.

One proposal, which the Premiership will vigorously contest, comes from Standard Liege. The Belgian club calls for all domestic leagues to be cut to 16 clubs, thus allowing all three European club competitions to adopt a Champions' League style format in the last 16.

This is unlikely to progress, but some restructuring of the European competitions is probable. Uefa's main proposal is to enlarge the Uefa Cup to 116 clubs. This would mean at least two, possibly three more English clubs being invited, and at least one other Scottish one.

While British clubs are naturally in favour of this, the corollary is a July start date, which would almost certainly hasten a winter break. The revamped Uefa Cup would open in July with 54 lower-placed clubs (such as those finishing fifth and sixth in the Premiership). The 27 winners would join 23 champions from those weaker nations not qualified for the Champions' League, for an August round. The 25 survivors would join the three qualifiers from the Intertoto Cup, the eight preliminary-round losers from the Champions' League, and the 28 seeds (which would include the usual English entrants). There may also be a one-off final.

It would not take long for Premiership clubs to realise that playing two rounds before the English season starts is a significant disadvantage. The winter break would follow. With the Christmas and New Year programme a popular and lucrative part of the calendar, the break would probably start after New Year and run for a month. The Endsleigh League would continue through January.

Other proposals include one by Rangers suggesting that the Champions' League dispenses with pre-qualifying and opens with eight groups of four. More radical - and greedy - is a plan under Any Other Business that all past winners should automatically qualify. This has been mooted by the likes of Barcelona and Milan, who, having failed to win their domestic leagues, are not in this year's competition. Despite an obvious appeal to Liverpool and Manchester United, Dein said English clubs were opposed to the idea.

There will also, inevitably, be discussion on Bosman. Whether clubs will obey the foreigners restrictions in this season's European competitions is the immediate concern. More long-term, there remains confusion over transfers though Gerd Aigner, the Uefa general-secretary, said last night he hoped Uefa might still negotiate a settlement with the European Community.

Yesterday, Tom Pendry, the Shadow Minister of Sport, met with Iain Sproat, his government counterpart, and urged him to take a lead in Europe in clarifying the issue and reducing its potential for harm. It was a timely illustration of football's growing importance - not that those in Geneva need reminding.

Asprilla set to sign, page 22

The Geneva agenda

Should all internationals be played at weekends?

Should all leagues be cut to 16 clubs?

Should a Europe-wide winter break be imposed?

Should the European season be aligned with the African one?

Should European competitions be restructured?

Proposals include:

Champions' League: All past winners to be granted automatic entry. Pre- qualifying to be replaced by eight groups of four. Fresh draw to be made for the knock-out rounds.

Uefa Cup: Competition to be expanded to 116 clubs. Last 16 to be staged in a league format. The final to be a one-off match.

European Cup-Winners' Cup: Increase the number of competing clubs. Last 16 to be staged in group format.

Also: Discussion of post-Bosman transfers and foreign-player restrictions. Discussion of the extent of Uefa's power to interfere in domestic programmes.

Possible timetable for 1998/99

June 1998: While the World Cup is being played in France, Premiership clubs begin pre-season training.

July: Premiership season starts, as does the opening round of the Uefa Cup.

August: Endsleigh League season starts.

January 1999: Premiership clubs take a winter break, but the Endsleigh League carries on.

May: Season ends.

June: Pre-season training begins again.

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