Big stick ready as 'the football family' squabbles

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The Independent Online

Football's world governing body, Fifa, has coined the cringe-making slogan "the football family" to describe the global sport it hamfistedly runs, but its cosy branding lies shattered now, following its chaotic handling of the European Commission's challenge to football's transfer system.

Football's world governing body, Fifa, has coined the cringe-making slogan "the football family" to describe the global sport it hamfistedly runs, but its cosy branding lies shattered now, following its chaotic handling of the European Commission's challenge to football's transfer system.

Fifa, having failed to respond to concerns about the system raised by the Bosman ruling in 1995, dragged its feet when formally asked by the EC in December 1998 to make alternative proposals. Even last week, on the brink of the EC's 31 October deadline, Fifa, which had called for a united response from the "football family", engaged instead in shabby internal politicking.

Gordon Taylor, representing FIFPro, the international umbrella for players' unions, says he was given proposals by Sepp Blatter, Fifa's president, which he worked through last Thursday night and Friday morning. FIFPro then delivered suggested amendments to put to the joint committee of Fifa and Uefa, European football's governing body, dealing with the EC negotiations.

Yet, at Friday's press conference, Blatter lambasted Taylor, accusing him of walking out of the talks. Taylor, who says he was at a loss to understand it, was subsequently told by Gerhard Aigner, Uefa's president, that FIFPro's proposals had not even been put to the meeting.

This long and short of this tangled tale is this: Fifa has a long-standing enmity with Uefa, which came to a head when Lennart Johansson, then Uefa president, challenged Blatter for the Fifa presidency in 1998. Fifa, according to Taylor, has resented Uefa wresting the lead over the transfer negotiations, and looked to do a backstage deal with FIFPro. When Taylor suggested amendments, Blatter saved face with Uefa by accusing Taylor of abandoning the process.

Nobody at Fifa was available yesterday to discuss this, while Uefa sources confirmed Taylor's version of events.

"Fifa weren't being honest," says Taylor. "When their plan to gain more control of the process didn't work, they spun it all against the players."

The result of this débâcle, even as the game faces a fundamental challenge, is, unsurprisingly, a clumsily fudged set of proposals which look glaringly inadequate: no international transfers for players under 18; payment (for players under 23) of the selling clubs' "training costs"; and, for players over 23, a 12-point compensation package.

The EC's competition commissioner, Mario Monti, argues that the transfer system breaches two elements of EC law: pure competition, because clubs are restricted from freely hiring talent, and the principle of the free movement of labour.

All in football argue that pure EC competition law should not apply to the sport. Poorer clubs, they say, have to be compensated when rich clubs cherry-pick their best talent, in order to maintain a healthy population of clubs, large and small, and to provide an incentive to develop young players. Privately, most in football reject the EC's view completely, and have looked to maintain the current system as much as possible. But, in making its case for the egalitarian benefits of the current system, it looks to have protested too much, overlooking its serious weaknesses.

The Uefa-Fifa case is largely based on a study produced by the financial consultants Deloitte and Touche. The study, which has not been made publicly available, makes an unequivocal case for the current system, arguing it "ensures the survival of the smaller clubs."

"The football transfer system operates as the most effective wealth distribution system," it says.

Yet, only three months ago, Deloitte and Touche produced its "Annual Review of Football Finance" in England. It described a "yawning chasm" between Premier and Football League clubs, many of which are operating at a loss and facing obliteration. Of the transfer system, the report found that in 1998-99 the Football League received £27m from the Premier League - four per cent of the Premier League's £670m turnover. Yet even this was a dramatic increase on 1997-98, when net transfer income had dwindled just £1.5m.

"Only time will tell if this [increase] is an anomaly," said the report. It said the diminishing of transfer activity between rich and poor was an "erosion of this traditional mechanism for the redistribution of revenue."

Now, another Deloitte and Touche report is arguing that the current system is crucial in redistributing money, and Uefa-Fifa's proposals are based largely on maintaining it.

Yet the proposals appear to be skewed dramatically in favour of the already rich. For players under 23, the proposals look to preserve for clubs, likely to be the smaller clubs, only a bare minimum: the "costs of training". But for players over 23 - including big clubs' fully-matured superstars - a 12-point package will provide for clubs to be paid a player's market value - even including loss of merchandise; the current system by another means.

Taylor argues that these proposals will not survive with the EC. He argues that if a player leaves a club while under contract, the club should be paid the equivalent of the wages the player would have been paid - a contractual settlement, as with other workers. Taylor welcomes the ending of the transfer system, in which players are bought and sold like chattels, which, even in this multi-millionaire age, carries disturbing echoes of the degrading, oppressive employment conditions of football's history.

Taylor argues that big clubs should indeed redistribute far more money to the small, but do so fairly and efficiently, by sharing more of huge television revenues, a prospect which appears not to be on the table to any substantial degree.

"We have always called for wider redistribution of money throughout football. That is why we opposed the Premier League breakaway in 1992. Yet now the clubs - including Premier League clubs - are saying they stand for redistribution. It's sheer hypocrisy."

Negotiations will now continue, and it remains to be seen whether they will be a catalyst for football genuinely sharing its money more widely, rather than looking to preserve the status quo. If not, the EC could reject the compensation package, and rule the whole system illegal. This would certainly be disastrous, consolidating yet more wealth in the hands of the rich, a prospect all the "football family" say they oppose.