Maradona's union to fight for justice

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Football

GUY HODGSON

The cut of the clothes suggested opulence not exploitation and the assembled press were looking at possibly the 15 most wealthy "comrades" in history, but yesterday Diego Maradona and other leading footballers launched a union to promote and safeguard players' rights worldwide.

The 34-year-old Argentinian, who is serving a 15-month ban from football after failing a drugs test in the 1994 World Cup finals, unveiled in Paris his plans to challenge the way the governing bodies are running the game. "We don't intend to fight anyone unless they want a fight," he said. The new body will be called the International Professional ers' Association and Maradona will be its first president.

"The idea of the association came to me," Maradona, who will return to football with Boca Juniors in Seoul on 30 September, said, "as a way of showing my solidarity with the many players who need the help of those who are more famous." The "hand of God" fancies getting to grips with injustice.

Certainly the attendance at the inaugural meeting could hardly have been improved in terms of football renown. Manchester United's Eric Cantona was there and others included the Brazilian World Cup player Rai, Italy's Gianluca Vialli and Milan's Liberian striker George Weah. Together the players represented 11 countries.

Cantona, also suspended until October after attacking a Crystal Palace supporter in January, said: "We are not planning a revolution. We want to sit down with everyone concerned with football and talk through all these problems.

"We hope that from now on, whenever there is an important decision affecting the sport, affecting spectators, affecting us, that it goes through us. Soccer is beautiful, it's not war."

Rai echoed those remarks, saying: "Our goal is to help the game, not to fight, and to help players. But it's only our first day. We have a lot to do."

They certainly do as neither the date of the next meeting, the headquarters of the new organisation, nor how it will be financed was revealed. Only vague outlines of policies were unveiled although those - free transfers, a fairer share of television money, opposition to unpopular midday kick- offs in World Cup matches and overcrowded seasons - suggested the new organisation had its expensive feet on the ground .

Maradona said the association was not a direct threat to Joao Havelange, the 79-year-old president of Fifa, the game's ruling body. "We only want to unite the players of the world, and our aim is not to make Mr Havelange leave. We want to change things and take part in everything which is being prepared for the football of tomorrow."

Tomorrow was an appropriate word as the first potential intervention could come when the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg is expected to rule in the case concerning Jean-Marc Bosman's five-year crusade to have the transfer rules of Europe's governing body, Uefa, declared illegal.

Michel Preud'homme, the Belgian voted the best goalkeeper at USA '94 and a former colleague of Bosman's at Standard Liege in the 1980s, said the new union was wholeheartedly behind his campaign. "The most important thing was for us to show solidarity," he said. "Now the real work begins."

Maradona also emphasised that, saying he would be happy to work with existing players' organisations, including the Professional ers'Assoc- iation, whose deputy chief executive, Brendan Batson, gave the new body a cautious welcome yesterday. He hoped contact would soon be established, particularly with FIFPRO, a body that already acts on behalf of unions across Europe and in parts of South America.

In Paris, however, there were questions over whether the controversial Maradona and Cantona were the right figureheads for an organisation with lofty ambitions. "It is not just the two of us here," Cantona replied, "but 13 other footballers, too. Soon we hope to represent thousands."

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