United next to fear the French backlash

Champions ‘stole’ teen prodigy after Arsenal had backed away in respect of rules, says Le Havre president
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The Independent Online

Arsène Wenger stepped away from signing the teenage prodigy who was picked up from the French side Le Havre by Manchester United and whose case leaves the Premier League champions under the threat of a transfer ban, The Independent has learned.

Though Arsenal have been by no means immune from claims over the years that they have unfairly poached young players, the president of Le Havre, Jean Pierre Louvel, has insisted they acted honourably in the case of Paul Pogba, the defensive midfielder and captain of the France Under 16s, when told he was not sale."Arsenal were also following him but we told them he was not for sale and they have the [grace] to stop trying to buy him. Not so Manchester," said M Louvel. "I'm fed up that some clubs can steal players from us like this."

Le Havre seem intent on making United pay heavily for the loss of Pogba, however long it takes. M Louvel declared that his club would pursue the case with the same vigour as Lens, whose complaint to Fifa about Chelsea's pursuit of Gaël Kakuta has prompted Fifa's decision that Chelsea shall be banned from the market for two transfer windows.

"The Lens case took two years and so ours will probably last just as long which is a shame," he said. "I hope that Manchester will find themselves with the same problems that Chelsea are now facing. We have to stop this haemorrhaging of players from France to England. We're not going to be able to get the player back at the end of the process but I believe there will be strong signals given as there were in the Lens case and in future that will mean clubs like these will be less tempted to take such young players."

There are serious doubts in France that Le Havre, who are yet to lodge a complaint with Fifa, have the same strength case as Lens did over Chelsea's conduct in the acquisition of Kakuta. While Kakuta was tied to a contract aspirant – an agreement French youngsters sign at 16 committing them to signing a full professional contract at a later date – Pogba and his parents had signed a bridging agreement, a contract de non solicitation, enforceable in France though not necessarily elsewhere and primarily designed to stave off rival French clubs before the aspirant is signed.

Manchester United are understood to be extremely confident that anything Pogba signed did not amount to a legally binding contract and that they were quite within their rights to pursue their player.

But then again, so did Chelsea, who will not receive Fifa's full legal grounds for their transfer ban for several weeks, but have been stunned by a decision which they will take to the Court for Arbitration in Sport, possibly in December.

The way that Le Havre say they discovered United's interest in their strapping defensive midfielder says everything about why France is in such a state of indignation with Premier League clubs' propensity for taking the stars of its legendary Clairefontaine facility.

In mid-May of this year, the club heard of internet reports suggesting that Pogba was the subject of interest from Manchester United and Arsenal, and that United were intent on signing him. The club were concerned, knowing the potential of a player they signed from Torcy, a side from a rough Parisien suburb. The club's managing director Alain Belsoeur told The Independent yesterday that he had initially faxed the United chief executive, David Gill, "to say that the player is under contract to us."

In response, there was a telephone call from United's academy director, Brian McClair, and several fax exchanges. "We put on paper and clearly explained that he was under contract to us."

But the player, who will be 16 next March, left. United insist they have made no payments to the player and reject suggestions from sources in France that the Le Havre club and the player's father were each paid €100,000 and that the player's mother was also offered €100,000 and a house. Pogba has indicated to friends in France that he expects a salary of €180,000 a month in two years, when he signs full professional terms.

Though Le Havre say they want sanctions against United similar to the transfer embargo imposed upon Chelsea, Fifa had received no correspondence from the club as of last night and, in a bizarre twist to what promises to be a long period of legal activity around the issue of British clubs signing young continental prodigies, United may be the club forced to take Le Havre to court over Pogba.

The French side have taken the unusual step of asking the French Football Federation to refuse to provide the necessary international transfer certificate (ITC) for Pogba to play in Britain, which means as yet he has been unable to play for United.

United's only means of securing one must come through an appeal to Fifa. Le Havre also asked the French federation not to accept Pogba into any of the national youth sides, a sanction similar to the one which Mikaël Silvestre was hit with after leaving for Internazionale from Rennes in 1998. Pogba has subsequently not appeared for the French Under-16 or -17 sides.

Though other European countries have complained equally bitterly of losing their brightest young players to the riches of Britain's club, France appears to be alone in its belief that its contractual arrangements are strong enough to secure punishments of the kind that Chelsea have incurred.

Fiorentina confirmed yesterday that they are going ahead with an official complaint to Uefa over United's signing of their Under-16 captain, Michele Fornasier and Reggina have lodged a similar complaint over the loss of Vincenzo Camilleri to Chelsea. These players were under 16, and therefore too young to be tied to contracts which would keep foreign clubs at bay.

But several sources in Italy suggested yesterday that the contractual positions of its young players were incomparable with those in France.

While Chelsea sought a way out of the disaster, the agent that was involved in securing Kakuta's services, Roger Boli, was keeping his head down. "I don't want to talk about this," he told The Independent. "I have nothing to say."

Player poaching: Italy and Germany

Italian clubs, who have suffered more than French from British clubs' interest in their young players, are lobbying Uefa to tighten up laws governing the transfers of under-18s overseas.

Manchester United's youth team are generally a good guide to the cream of Italian youth, with the loss of Federico Macheda and Davide Petrucci from Lazio and Roma a source of angst before Michele Fornasier headed the same way from Fiorentina. It was Macheda's case earlier this year which raised the issue of Premier League clubs moving for 15-year-olds, with Italian clubs hidebound by their inability to sign them up under the age of 16. "They tempt parents with big money and offers of work, without any ethical codes," Lazio president Claudio Lotito said at the time. "All these players are stolen as a matter of course."

Reggina's complaint to Uefa and the Italian football federation over the loss of Vincenzo Camilleri is also under consideration. Borussia Dortmund were not happy either, when they lost Stephen Sama and Christopher Buchtmann to Liverpool from their academy, though Germany is not understood to support the idea of a Uefa ban on clubs signing foreign players under the age of 18, principally because that would limit its potential to hire from its own sizeable immigrant communities.

But France is perhaps bound to feel the sting of indignation more than most. Some of its finest young players are also to be found in the Italian leagues, as they have been since the departures of Mikael Silvestre and his Rennes team-mate Ousmane Dabo to Inter was a source of national indignation 11 years ago.

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