Clubs fearful of salary explosion

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Europe's leading clubs rounded on the European Commission yesterday over their threat to scrap the transfer system, warning that the plan could have disastrous consequences for the game.

Europe's leading clubs rounded on the European Commission yesterday over their threat to scrap the transfer system, warning that the plan could have disastrous consequences for the game.

At a meeting on Thursday in Zurich, Uefa and Fifa officials conceded ground by agreeing to the free movement of players over the age of 24 in a move designed to prevent the whole system of transfers being dismantled. But the EC's plan was strongly criticised by leading football figures across Germany, England, France and Italy, who said both big and small clubs would be hit.

Opposition in the German Bundesliga was led by the champions, Bayern Munich. Their president, Franz Beckenbauer, argued that abolishing transfer fees would see players go to the highest bidder - for wages far beyond today's inflated levels. "The amount of money in circulation will remain the same but it will go to the players instead of going to the clubs," he said. "Salaries will explode and the players will become even richer."

Football's ruling bodies have been spurred into action over the past few weeks by the EC's insistence that they fall in line EU regulations on freedom of movement. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Bayern's vice-president, said: "The clubs take all the risks economically. They are responsible for the contracts, Sepp Blatter [the Fifa president] is not. Therefore it is not acceptable to make any changes without consulting the clubs, which are the employers."

Beckenbauer's fear of a wages boom was shared in the City of London. David Pope, an analyst at brokers Wise Speke, agreed that players would be the major winners, with wages rising at a rate that could only favour the clubs with deepest pockets. "The decision will affect different clubs in different ways - it will significantly damage the smaller clubs, but some of the bigger clubs might actually benefit from it," Pope said.

A recent report by the accountants Deloitte Touche said two-thirds of the income of most English clubs already went on wages, which now risk spiralling out of control.

Manchester United have the Premier League's highest earner in Roy Keane, who is paid around £50,000 a week - and they share Bayern's desire to keep things as they are.

The United director Sir Bobby Charlton said: "If people have the freedom to move whenever they like, I think it would create a lot of disturbance and disharmony within the world of football."

Peter Kenyon, Manchester United's chief executive officer, said: "It will be better not to change." That view was also echoed by Arsenal's vice-chairman David Dein and their manager Arsÿne Wenger. "The FA and all the clubs in England are robustly behind the current system," Dein said. "I'd like people to calm down and try to see things in the cold light of day."

Arsenal paid an estimated £13m last week for the 26-year-old French international striker Sylvain Wiltord, and Wenger said: "It would be disastrous if transfer fees were outlawed completely. It is very worrying to think that a player who was worth millions yesterday could be worth nothing tomorrow."

French officials also oppose the EC proposals, believing they would sound the death-knell of a youth training system that has made them world and European champions. Smaller clubs often keep themselves afloat financially by training up young players and selling them on to big clubs.

Aimé Jacquet, the national coach when France won the World Cup in 1998, said: "Perhaps there won't be any youth training anymore. The clubs that spend a lot in training youngsters will stop doing it."

In Italy, there were fears that the new plans could sound serious alarm bells for European football. The national sport's daily newspaper, Gazzetta dello Sport, wrote: "It is unthinkable that a great club would have to reproduce itself each year, that a team would emerge from September to June only to dissolve in the summer purely because the players have been seduced by better offers. This would be a triumph of the most speculative elements in football and we will have arrived at the moment when the public decides to go to the cinema."

The situation is trickier to assess in Spain, where players already have the right to walk out on their contracts - albeit at the price of a hefty buy-out clause. Real Madrid poached the Portuguese international Luis Figo from Barcelona over the summer simply by paying the £37m stipulated in his buy-out clause.

Pedro Tomas, the Spanish Football League's general secretary, was quoted by El Pais yesterday as saying the Spanish system would continue to operate. "The agreement in principle reached in Zurich will not affect Spanish clubs. The Spanish law, which has existed for 15 years, will continue as it is," he said.

However, Tomas is assuming that players will keep signing contracts with such high buy-out clauses and also that the EC will not see those amounts as restrictive.

Barcelona set Rivaldo's last season at £106m for foreign clubs - effectively warding off a hostile bid for the Brazilian from Italy's Lazio.