Football: Premiership under fire from Blatter

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The Premiership came under increased pressure yesterday to reduce the number of clubs in the top division when Sepp Blatter, the general secretary of Fifa, the game's international governing body, criticised the number of games being played.

Fifa's European counterpart, Uefa, have shown their displeasure at the 20-club Premiership by denying next season's Coca-Cola Cup winners a Uefa Cup place. Uefa, looking to extend the scope of the Champions' League still further, say that top divisions should contain no more than 18 clubs, a proposal originally adopted by Premiership chairmen but now seemingly ignored. And Blatter went a stage further by urging a further reduction to 16.

Blatter, speaking in Zurich, picked out the Premiership and Spain's Premier Liga. "Both of them are too big," he said. "The Premiership has 20 teams and the Spanish First Division has 22 teams. A much more sensible figure would be 16 teams."

Blatter again criticised television's growing role in the game. "In some countries you have a big match on television every day. It is too much and is a threat to the game. There are simply too many matches. Players do not have time to recover," he said.

Blatter, who effectively ruled himself out of the running to replace Joao Havelange as the Fifa president when the Brazilian stands down next year, revealed there was likely to be a compromise with the French authorities over the issue of perimeter fences at next summer's World Cup finals.

Fifa have bitterly opposed the fences, insisting they create the wrong image for the sport, with Blatter stating publicly: "Fences are for animals not football fans." The French Government has so far said security concerns means the fences will stay, but Blatter said: "I think you will see no fences along the sidelines and fencing behind the goals will be much lower.

"When we drew up the regulation for the 1998 World Cup finals we did not include the banning of fences," he said. "That was an oversight. As there were no fences in the United States finals we did not think about it. But in future any country wanting to host the finals will have to agree not to put up fences."

The Premier League responded to Blatter's comments by pointing out the Premiership was smaller now than it had originally been. Their spokesman, Mike Lee, said: "The Premiership has been cut from 22 to 20 clubs. At this stage in our development we believe that strikes the right balance."

But although the loss of the Coca-Cola Cup Uefa place actually strengthens the Premiership's hand as the extra place will be awarded on the basis of League position, Lee did not rule out the possibility of a future cut to the Uefa "model" size of 18 clubs.

"Decisions on the size of domestic leagues are a matter for the leagues' governing bodies," he said. "There is also an ongoing debate on this issue which our clubs will participate in during the years ahead."

Bayern Munich's co-trainer, Klaus Augenthaler, has signed a two-year contract with the Austrian First Division club Casino Graz. Augenthaler, 39, was presented by Casino Graz yesterday as successor to the club's present coach, August Starek. He will take up the post next season. Casino Graz are currently lying sixth in the Austrian league championship standings.