Football: Europe in World Cup warning

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The Independent Online
Lennart Johansson, the president of the European football union, Uefa, last night warned there is a risk that Europe "won't participate" in the World Cup if football's world governing body presses on with proposals to stage the tournament every two years instead of four.

Johansson is furious with Sepp Blatter, the president of the world game's governing body, Fifa, for failing to consult him over the possible change. Blatter had rejected claims that he and Johansson were at loggerheads over the proposals, which Uefa fear will ruin the European championships.

However, Johansson said last night that Blatter, who beat him to become Fifa's president last year, had behaved unacceptably by floating the idea without consulting him.

"I was extremely surprised that we went back to the old system where the president allowed himself to make statements about anything without asking anyone and that I cannot accept," Johansson said. "Uefa, from a sporting and finance point of view, is of importance. It would have been good if he started by talking to us."

Asked if he thought the Blatter plan, which drew a mixed reception around the world, was doomed to failure, Johansson said: "No, he can come through with it but the risk is that Europe won't participate.

"The risk is that the representatives from the big clubs in Europe would turn to me and say `this is too much. This we cannot accept'. Medical experts say you cannot do this. The medical chairman in Uefa and Fifa says you cannot do this. It is time to analyse and really go into depth what will happen to our European Championships? It all depends on the reaction of the associations and the clubs."

Fifa's Strategic Studies Committee, which can propose changes to international competitions, is due to discuss Blatter's suggestion in depth later this month. The Fifa president hopes a World Cup-style international tournament can be arranged to celebrate the world body's 100th anniversary in 2004, which would clash with the European championships, but he has conceded that the biennial World Cup could not be introduced before 2006.

The war of words has prompted accusations that Blatter and Johansson are involved in a club versus country war over the future of football following Uefa's revamping of their lucrative European club competitions before Christmas.

Blatter told BBC Radio 5 Live last night that he was determined to protect the interests of national teams, and his World Cup plans are clearly a major part of that strategy. "Although in Europe we know the focus is on the clubs, we must also protect the interests of national teams," he said.

His World Cup proposal has already had a knock-on effect on other sports. The International Athletic Federation has considered making changes to the structure of its competitions to protect itself against the expected deluge of football. It is considering restricting Olympic competition to athletes aged 23 and under to protect the "exclusivity" of its world championships, which could encounter a scheduling conflict with the World Cup or the Olympics.

Blatter has suggested the World Cup would not be played in an Olympic year, but then it could clash with the biennial athletics world championships, which could in turn be moved from odd years to even years. Such a change would put every other championships in the same year as the Olympics, where track and field is considered the main attraction.

"If there will be this clash, we we will have to protect our world championships," Giorgio Reineri said at the IAAF's headquarters in Monaco. "We will need to be sure we will be the only event with the best athletes. Naturally, the IAAF will study the best way in order to assure the exclusivity of the best athletes for its world championships."

Blatter had encouragement for England's campaign to host the 2006 World Cup.

There had been fears that the "cash-for-votes" scandal that brought down the Football Association's chairman, Keith Wiseman, and its chief executive, Graham Kelly, would undermine England's bid, which faces a strong challenge from fellow candidates Germany, Brazil and South Africa. But Blatter said on Radio Five Live last night: "They have always had a good chance and they will maintain a good chance in the future. I cannot understand why England is now doubting its chances."

He said his proposals for biennial finals improved England's chances of hosting the tournament at stage, and expressed surprise that England 2006 bid organisers had not been in touch with him over his proposals.