Europe's richest clubs launch power play

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The Independent Online

The Champions' League juggernaut has begun its season-long haul this week, fuelled by £330m destined mostly for Europe's richer clubs, yet the organiser Uefa, European football's governing body, is still facing increasing demands from the big clubs for more money and power, backed by the ultimate threat of a breakaway. Even as the first group matches are being played out, the secretive G14 group of major clubs is finalising plans to form an association and permanent office in Brussels, to be run by Thomas Kurth, a key Champions' League administrator poached in July from Uefa.

The Champions' League juggernaut has begun its season-long haul this week, fuelled by £330m destined mostly for Europe's richer clubs, yet the organiser Uefa, European football's governing body, is still facing increasing demands from the big clubs for more money and power, backed by the ultimate threat of a breakaway. Even as the first group matches are being played out, the secretive G14 group of major clubs is finalising plans to form an association and permanent office in Brussels, to be run by Thomas Kurth, a key Champions' League administrator poached in July from Uefa.

Uefa has been shocked by the move - Kurth was the Champions' League operations manager, and so his appointment appears to signal an intention by G14 to run a competition, rather than merely pressurise Uefa for more concessions.

Mike Lee, Uefa's new communications director, formerly head of the press office at the English Premier League, would not comment on G14, but said: "Uefa is absolutely opposed to breakaway leagues or competitions. We have made changes to the European club competitions which are working. It is important to ensure competitions are governed by the appropriate football authorities."

In 1998, a breakaway proposal by Italian-based company Media Partners was given advanced consideration by Europe's big clubs, and headed off by Uefa only after offering major concessions. These included expanding the Champions' League to its current 32 club, double group-stage format, increasing clubs' share of the money to 75 per cent, and wholesale internal reform of Uefa to give clubs more power. These reforms were passed this summer, Uefa's 27 committees slashed to 11, and its structure "streamlined" to allow clubs easier access to Gerhard Aigner, Uefa's general secretary.

Despite this, the big clubs are pressing ahead with formalising their association outside Uefa's control. Formed following the breakdown of the Media Partners talks, the G14 clubs (see table), have continued to meet periodically and make, piecemeal, their demands for a bigger share of European football's increasing financial rewards.

Few except Bayern Munich's vice-president and former leading player, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, have talked openly about G14 membership, let alone policy. But according to well-placed sources, the clubs decided on 9 June to form an association, and a constitution is being drafted at the Brussels office of the law firm Andersen Legal. G14 hopes to open its office, within two months, with Kurth at its head.

Rummenigge revealed this summer that an approach had been made to the clubs by the Spanish communications company, Telefonica, to form a breakaway European League, and two other offers have been reported. A senior figure at one member club said they were happy with the Champions' League format, but said bluntly: "We have a problem. We want more money."

The clubs believe they could obtain more for the Europe-wide TV rights than the 828m Swiss francs (£330m) Uefa obtains - England's Premier League alone is due to receive £540m a season from 2001 for its TV rights. The clubs are also understood to be unhappy with the distribution of the money, the share retained by Uefa, and Uefa's accountability for it. G14 clubs are also frustrated by having to release their best players for international duty.

At present, 75 per cent of Champions' League TV and sponsorship revenue is distributed to the 32 participating clubs, according to their progress in the tournament. Last season's winners, Real Madrid, made £18m; Manchester United received £14m for reaching the quarter-finals; Dynamo Kiev, knocked out in the second group stage, were paid £4.3m; and Molde, who went out after the first group phase, were paid £2.2m. Of the remaining money, £120,000 is paid to Uefa's 51 national member football associations (£6.12m in total), and payments are made to clubs who play in early qualifying rounds but fail to qualify for the group stage.

Uefa argues that its system protects the "solidarity" of football in Europe, redistributing money to poorer national associations. But the G14 clubs argue that Uefa is not open about how it spends its share of the money, and how much is paid in commission to Team, Uefa's sole marketing agents.

Both G14's English members, Liverpool and Manchester United, have said they do not favour a breakaway; United are understood to support G14 as a lobbying presence to keep Uefa keen. Others appear more aggressive. Rummenigge, discussing the Telefonica offer, said: "In the long run, Uefa will find it increasingly difficult to keep clubs together."

The Italian clubs have made much of the running in G14 - with Milan, having failed to qualify for last season's Champions' League, pressing for automatic entry for "major clubs". Spain's Barcelona and Real Madrid have sold their domestic TV rights, for a huge £250m for five years from 2003, and are believed to favour a similar individual selling arrangement for European competitions.

Inevitably, the European Commission looms over this stand-off; G14 is thought to be waiting to decide its policy until the EC has ruled on a complaint brought against Uefa by Media Partners. The EC is also looking at the legality of Uefa's central selling of Champions' League TV rights. An EC spokeswoman, Amelia Torres, says the Commission has to have good reasons to allow collective selling, which could include: "Solidarity measures, and redistribution of income to smaller clubs."

This key lobbying battleground partly explains G14's choice of Brussels as the site for their office, and also Uefa's appointment of Mike Lee, whose background is in New Labour politics and lobbying. Lee is considered in football to have steered the Premier League successfully through the political challenges posed by the Government's Football Task Force and the case against collective selling brought by the Office of Fair Trading.

Uefa argues that, as the governing body, it should be allowed to continue to sell rights centrally, ensuring that the money is more widely distributed than if the big clubs ran a competition themselves. Uefa's roots are in a sporting, not business, approach to football; they still describe their "mission" as: "Protecting and nurturing the well-being of the sport at all levels, from the élite to the thousands who play the game as a hobby."

G14's intensifying tussle with Uefa crystallises at European level the modern challenge for any sporting governing body - how to preserve the notion of sport as a pure, communal activity, while keeping money-hungry corporations happy - and under some control.

POWER PLAYERS: THE G14 CLUBS TURNOVER 1997-98

Manchester United £87.9m Real Madrid £72.2m Bayern Munich £65.2m Juventus £55.3m Barcelona £48.6m Milan £48.6m Internazionale £48.2m Liverpool £45.5m Borussia Dortmund £41.5m Paris St-Germain £32.9m PSV Eindhoven £26.2m Ajax £25.2m Marseilles £15.4m Porto £8.5m

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