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Uefa defends lifetime ban on referee

Uefa, football's European governing body, defended its decision yesterday to impose a lifetime ban on an international referee accused of attempted bribery.

The referee, Switzerland's Kurt Rothlisberger, has protested his innocence despite the ban made last week and in a statement on Monday said he would appeal against the decision before Uefa's deadline of midnight tonight.

Sepp Blatter, general secretary of Fifa, the world's governing body, offered the disgraced referee a crumb of comfort. "I'm surprised at the sentence," he said "At Fifa we don't envisage a life-long punishment, only one that is limited in time.

"If you listen and see how Rothlisberger speaks and behaves, there are two possibilities.

"Either something has been exaggerated unnecessarily or there are many actors at work."

Uefa officials were reluctant to go into details about the case before hearing the referee's appeal. "We would never have made the decision if we weren't 100 per cent sure," said a Uefa spokesman. "It wouldn't have been enough to be 99.9 per cent sure.

"We took the decision based on the information we gathered, including what Mr Rothlisberger had given us."

Rothlisberger, who officiated at both European and World Cup matches, was barred for alleged attempted bribery in an October 1996 Champions' Cup game between Grasshopper of Zurich and Auxerre of France.

The German-speaking referee maintains a casual conversation he had with Grasshopper officials was taken out of context. He says he may have mistakenly given Uefa the impression of his guilt because he signed some Uefa documents handwritten in legalistic French, which he did not understand.

Within the sport Rothlisberger had a reputation for fairness, although he made some questionable decisions, among them the failure to award a penalty in the 1994 World Cup match between Germany and Belgium.

Blatter has been campaigning for years for professional, paid referees but he dismissed allegations of widespread corruption among amateur officials. "We need to get away from the impression that referees are ripe for bribes. That's not true at all," he said.

Rothlisberger found himself steeped in more scandal on Saturday when a Swiss tabloid, Blick, accused him of offering to bribe the Spanish referee of a World Cup qualifying match between Switzerland and Norway last November.

Rothlisberger denied this and said it was the newspaper that approached him. He said a reporter had also told him that the Romanian referee was bribed for a Switzerland-Turkey European Championship qualifier in 1994.

In a statement made through his lawyer, Rothlisberger toned down his allegations but did not withdraw them.

Blick has threatened to sue Rothlisberger, as has Credit Suisse, the main sponsor of the Turkey-Switzerland match. The Swiss football federation and the Romanian referee in question have also indicated they might take legal action.