Football: Europe's stark choice: reform or revolution

Nick Townsend says the continent's leading clubs crave total football control
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The Independent Online
LENNART JOHANNSEN, the president of Uefa is this weekend on holiday in Switzerland, although it is doubtful whether he will be able to lie back and relax to the sound of cow bells.

Not while the power-base of European football is under siege as never before and the message from Europe's football club elite to Johannsen and his colleagues is ingenuous enough: reform or revolution. Or, as one informed source put it more caustically last night: "If you don't reform sufficiently you'll end up with a bloody revolution on your hands."

The issue is not so much a breakaway European Super League, of profound concern though that concept is to the supporters of Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool, as well as to the remaining Premiership clubs. The real agenda here concerns a mission to superannuate Uefa, regarded by many in its present form as anachronistic.

European football's governing body has increasingly been perceived by the major clubs as acting in a high-handed manner and being distant from the professional game. There is a gathering disquiet that it works only through the national associations, who are no longer necessarily representative of the top domestic leagues, rather than through direct consultation with the Premiership, Serie A, and the Bundesliga, among others. The clubs want a far more influential say in how European football is run, what money is generated through TV and sponsorship, and how it is distributed.

Premier League clubs meet on 3 September at a secret venue in London, when the mood towards the "turncoat trio" is expected to be somewhat icy, although the reality is understood to be that Liverpool's interest is marginal, that Arsenal are said to be divided, and that Manchester United are the only club with a confirmed interest.

"We do believe there is a case for reform of the current European club competitions," said Premier League spokesman Mike Lee. "However, breakaway super leagues are not the answer. There needs to be a full and proper discussion within Uefa involving the top leagues."

Graham Kelly, chief executive of the Football Association, said yesterday that the Super League threat was a matter for concern and added that perhaps there was a case for reform at Uefa; their competitions were not perceived as providing sufficient funds for the elite clubs.

The invective against the British conspirators implicated in the breakaway has been caused as much by the clandestine manner in which they have conducted discussions as by the fact of their potential involvement. In this latest version of Monopoly, those Premiership clubs, along with the likes of Milan, Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, have been promised a reported pounds 3m just for passing "Go" and signing up.

Then there is the promise of pounds 20m a season for participation in the League Of Going Nowhere, where stability is the only certainty. It has been mooted that there should be two mid-week leagues of 16 teams, one of permanent residency and based on prestige and wealth; the other for tenants whose place is secured by qualification and terminated by relegation.

Nevertheless, the allure of hitherto unthinkable amounts of television money has been tempting enough for the obvious suspects to enter negotiations with Media Partners International, the company behind the breakaway. Despite Media Partners' denial last week that they had any involvement with Silvio Berlusconi, the Milan owner, media mogul and staunch advocate of a super league, there appears little doubt that he - possibly in tandem with Rupert Murdoch - would be first in a queue of two to acquire the television rights. However, for all Berlusconi's enthusiasm such a breakaway is unlikely in the extreme unless it involves some form of meritocracy. "There is an obvious mood for change," said a source close to the negotiations. "But this is a shot across the bows to see how Uefa responds."

Gerhard Aigner, the general secretary of Uefa, is formulating his reaction, but the likelihood is that the Champions' League and other competitions will be reformed. While there could well be a regular European fixture list, it will continue to be based on qualification through merit.

Yet, the obduracy of Uefa will not be easily overcome. About a year ago, the Premier League began convening a series of meetings of all the top leagues in Europe. Uefa became involved and agreed that it would reform its committee structure. It changed its quaintly-named Non-Amateur Clubs Committee to become the Professional Clubs Committee, which it was believed would have considerable clout when it came to policy. That faith did not last long. When Uefa put forward proposals to change the group structure of the Champions' League to four groups of six, the professional club representatives on that committee demanded far more wide-ranging consultation about the whole issue of European competition before giving the changes their approval. Uefa ignored them and pressed ahead regardless.

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