Denmark lashes out at 'anti-democratic' Fifa

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The Independent Football

The tea and sympathy that was poured out by Tony Blair this week for Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa, is not likely to be matched by similar hospitality in Copenhagen, where the Danish Minister for Culture was attacking football's world governing body as unaccountable and self-interested, and refusing to support it during its negotiations with the European Commission over the future of the transfer system.

The tea and sympathy that was poured out by Tony Blair this week for Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa, is not likely to be matched by similar hospitality in Copenhagen, where the Danish Minister for Culture was attacking football's world governing body as unaccountable and self-interested, and refusing to support it during its negotiations with the European Commission over the future of the transfer system.

Speaking during "Play the Game", an international conference for sports journalists, administrators and academics supported by the Danish Government, Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen scorned Fifa's delay in responding to the EC, and rejected Blatter's attempts to seek an exemption for football from European Union rules. "This suggests sports organisations and leaders show little respect for democracy and responsibility," Nielsen said. She also argued that sport should embody and protect its "fundamental ethics and values" against their erosion by big business. She said, as Fifa has allowed football to become commercialised, it had to be subject to EC law, as with any other business.

"The transfer issue is now between Fifa and the EC," she added. "We do not believe it is right for governments to interfere." Her comments make the prospects remote for the kind of special protocol for football, which was called for by Blatter this week after what he described as a "supportive" meeting at 10 Downing Street.

Many in British football support the campaign for a protocol, including Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, but the Government's position is increasingly unclear. In Lisbon in May, only Ms Nielsen and Kate Hoey, the British Minister for Sport, opposed a protocol at a meeting of European sports ministers.

Government sources have since blamed reluctance on the part of the Department of Trade and Industry and the Foreign Office, but Ms Nielsen said that Hoey and she shared the same opinion - no exemption should be given while Fifa remains unaccountable and presides over increasing commercialisation.

"Sport must be committed to fundamental values, of community and democracy," she said. "Financial gain cannot be its principal focus. If that tendency continues, it is difficult to maintain government support." Denmark has a long-standing ethical view of sport, which is rooted in voluntary, unpaid participation, and, even now, regards professionalism as a kind of tainted, if unavoidable offshoot. Ms Nielsen said she was not concerned that the end of the transfer system could threaten the future of Denmark's smaller professional clubs, even when all but a handful are reported to be in serious financial trouble. The sports director of one exception, FC Copenhagen, raised the temperature, particularly among the large complement of African journalists, when he outlined the youth academy his club has established in Port Elizabeth in South Africa.

Niels-Christian Holmstrom claimed the scheme, which trains 20 boys a year aged 14 to 18, is superior to the crude and exploitative talent-hunting becoming rife in other parts of Africa, and is "socially just" because the boys also receive a general education. "There is a lot of technical skill in Africa," Holmstrom said, "but many players are mentally weak. Our idea is to develop life skills with football skills. We don't believe you can create good footballers without social skills."

The project, supported by the Danish Government and launched in February this year, will run for five years supported by a $1.3m (£897,000) investment by FC Copenhagen, in partnership with the University of Port Elizabeth and a local company, Sport Access. But many in a sceptical audience contested claims that it offers wider benefits to Port Elizabeth's poor townships. Pressed hard, Holmstrom conceded that its aim is to unearth talented players who can be brought to Copenhagen and then sold on at a profit.

"Yes," he said, "we have to look after our shareholders, and we hope to make a profit from it." Several other European clubs are looking to forge similar supply lines for raw African talent. Ajax of Amsterdam bought Cape Town's Premier League club - now renamed Ajax Cape Town - while Manchester United, as part of the deal which brought Quinton Fortune to Old Trafford, effectively use as a nursery one of Cape Town's lower division clubs, FC Fortune - now owned by and named after the player.

Julia Beffon, the Sports Editor of South Africa's Mail & Guardian, said there was deep anger about the damage that such schemes were doing to her country's domestic football and sense of being. "It's a kind of colonialism, making teams nursery teams for Western countries," she said. "You're investing very little and hoping to make a great profit. What will come back besides 19 boys out of the 20 you've selected?"

Last week the EU recognised the danger of young Africans being exploited by unscrupulous agents, who take them to Europe on the promise of professional contracts, but end up leaving them at the mercy of homelessness or worse when clubs fail to show an interest. "Our scheme is not about white people exploiting blacks," said Holmstrom. "If I had been a real imperialist we would have simply bought a franchise, which are on sale all the time. That's real exploitation. We are giving something back." He said he did not believe the scheme, or its profits, were jeopardised too much by the challenge to transfer fees, because the EC says it is willing to let clubs be compensated for training young players.

Malcolm Clarke, the chairman of England's Football Supporters Association, reiterated the call for independent regulation during the conference, and said the FSA would watch "very carefully" the Independent Football Commission, the proposed new watchdog which has emerged from the work of the Football Task Force. "It is the first kind of independent scrutiny," he said. "But it falls short of regulation because it has no statutory powers. We want to see it be an effective body, not yet another talking shop which achieves nothing."

Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen added that international governing bodies are suffering from a "democratic deficit", allowing sports to be exploited by commercial interests. There appears no prospect of Denmark following Britain's lead in backing Fifa. "If sport becomes a commodity," Nielsen added, "then it forfeits the support of governments."

davidconn@freeuk.com

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