Football: Pioneer predicts expansion

Steve Tongue reports on support for a Uefa-approved European super league
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The Independent Online
PLANS for a breakaway European Super League have next to no chance of succeeding, but an official one, sanctioned by Uefa, will be up and running within three years. That is the view of the man who was first asked 10 years ago by Silvio Berlusconi to devise a pan-European league.

Berlusconi, the multi- millionaire media magnate, owner of Milan and former Italian Prime Minister, is widely believed to be one of the driving forces behind the recent secret talks discussing the possibility of by-passing Uefa to introduce such a competition.

In 1988 his attention was drawn to a speech by Alex Fynn, deputy chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi, at the launch of the Rothmans Football Yearbook, which comprised a 10-point plan to modernise football. A European Super League was one of those points and Berlusconi, a client of Saatchi's, asked him to produce a blueprint. Fynn's proposal - two divisions of nine or 10 clubs - was rejected by Uefa, but, as intended, serious debate had begun. Constant pressure from the bigger clubs who want guarantees of more matches at the highest level, has led to a format for the Champions' League in which, from the 1999-2000 season, seeded teams will play 10 group matches each. But with runners-up from eight countries already included, Fynn believes the next step is an expanded league.

"The Champions' League can't evolve any further," he said. "It runs from July to May, it encompasses a knockout stage, then a league, then knockout again. They've effectively put a sell-by date on their own competition. It will have to become a fully fledged league, which Uefa will back if it's a democratic one. What they won't back is a hand-picked competition on the basis of size, reputation and status. That would be outlawed by Uefa, Fifa and indeed the FA, so players wouldn't be able to play for their national team. So the chances of a breakaway are practically nil. The big clubs have been listening to overtures, but that's been happening for the past half a dozen years."

Graham Kelly, the chief executive of the Football Association, concurred with Fynn's view when he told BBC Radio 5 Live yesterday: "The clubs who may be involved must understand that there can be only one recognised structure for international football. There has to be the system whereby you go through your own domestic leagues and associations, through Uefa and through Fifa. You can't have another organisation outside because it just won't work. The rest of football cannot allow a structure to develop

Fynn's current suggestion is for four leagues of 10 clubs in the Champions' League, comprising the champions of 30 countries and the runners-up from 10. Teams would therefore play 18 matches each, while remaining in their own domestic leagues. The four winners would play off in a semi-final and final.

Where he now parts company with Berlusconi is in insisting that the only way to qualify each season would be on merit, through success in domestic competition. "Berlusconi is a genuine fan in his way, but he's an American fan. Even promotion and relegation is too risky for him. Milan have an astronomical wage bill, Real Madrid have gone hugely into debt, so they're desperate to be in Europe every season. The mistake he makes is that this isn't the NFL or the NHL." Amid the talk of cloak-and-dagger meetings with London-based banks and lawyers, where do clubs like Arsenal and Manchester United really stand in all this? On the fringes, talking quietly among themselves, according to Fynn.

"The English clubs are not the movers and shakers. They're waiting until the party is all set up, then they can come along and join it. They would like more big games, but they're not prepared to rock Uefa's boat. But I've always been convinced a league will happen. It will happen not this year or next, but the year after, when the current television contract runs out. I just hope it will happen on the right basis, by maintaining merit."