New battlegrounds but same old issues for Uefa

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The Independent Online

For many years now, since before the Bosman ruling in 1995, Uefa, European football's ruling body, has been lobbying governments in an effort to persuade the European Union to recognise the unique and special nature of sport, particularly professional sport. Latterly, football has been calling not for a treaty amendment but rather a so-called protocol by which states and courts would be obliged to have regard to this special nature when making decisions and policies.

For many years now, since before the Bosman ruling in 1995, Uefa, European football's ruling body, has been lobbying governments in an effort to persuade the European Union to recognise the unique and special nature of sport, particularly professional sport. Latterly, football has been calling not for a treaty amendment but rather a so-called protocol by which states and courts would be obliged to have regard to this special nature when making decisions and policies.

It is only with the recent EU intervention on the transfer system that any UK government has ever taken an interest in football's problems with the bureaucrats in Brussels, and the transfer fees have been accorded status previously attaching to the great British banger or bananas. Tony Blair, in a joint statement with the Germans, has espoused football's cause in the interests of the smaller clubs.

Uefa is also taking measures to remedy the imbalance that exists in the television markets, which is creating a concentration of resources in the richest countries. A working party is considering the feasibility of capping players' salaries.

Uefa has suggested to Fifa, football's world's governing body, that the international transfer of players under 18 years of age should be prohibited and is considering, too, whether to limit all transfers to a restricted part of the season.

But the most far-reaching proposal of all as Uefa strives to maintain equality of opportunity across its broad spectrum of members is the licensing system for clubs. Without the licence, awarded after determining a club's standing according to four criteria - sporting, administrative, financial and legal - the club would not be allowed to play in Uefa competitions. The executive committee will discuss a report on the proposed licensing system in June and aim to implement it from season 2002-03.

The financial criterion will be the most contentious. Who is to say whether a club is sound? For example, I don't suppose any prudent accountant would find Fulham's cash flow suitable bedtime reading, but the club is heading for the riches of the Premier League and Mohamed Al Fayed has deep pockets.

It's safe to assume that the G14 clubs, a powerful lobby group comprising past winners of the European Cup including Liverpool and Manchester United, will not look warmly upon Uefa's extension of cooperative ideals. These clubs want the television riches to be concentrated, not dissipated across the poorer areas of the European game. One of their leading lights is Real Madrid, whose debt at the last count was nearing £200m.

The publication of G14's demands is eagerly awaited. No doubt they will want those very inconvenient friendly internationals abolished and payment of international players' wages by the national associations.

The battleground is different, but the issues fundamentally mirror those which have arisen from time to time in English football. The clubs first made advances to the Football Association after the Second World War and the FA's response was to help set up the provident fund for players.

During the next decade the tension moved to inside the Football League. The regionally elected management committee was thrown out and replaced by divisional representatives, with the then First Division taking the lion's share of the seats. A little later, a breakaway by the bigger clubs was only averted by a last-minute deal, which saw the Professional Footballers' Association reduce their percentage of the television money so as to allow the First Division to take 75 per cent.

This proved to be only a holding operation, for on the publication of the Taylor Report in 1990 the leading clubs approached the FA, not making demands this time, but seeking relief from the rule which obliged them to give three years' notice to quit the League. They felt they could not make progress (or money) in the old structure.

The Premier League was set up and the then President of the Football League, former Lancashire Fusilier Bill Fox, of Blackburn Rovers, memorably replied to a question: "What' s up? I'll tell you what's up. The big clubs want all the money, that's what's up."

What will the G14 clubs do with the money they extract from Uefa? Improve their grounds, or reduce their debts? At least the Premier League clubs built some fine youth academies. Real Madrid already receive about £15m per year out of Uefa's distributions, whereas the whole of Welsh football gets £300,000.

grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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