Saturday, July 30, 2011

FIFA faces challenge from clubs of Europe

From The International Herald Tribune:

FIFA faces challenge from clubs of Europe


BY DOREEN CARVAJAL AND STEPHEN CASTLE

Long disgruntled European soccer clubs are mounting a muscular new challenge to FIFA, the international soccer federation, by pressing a dispute over finances and decision-making into the political arena, where the powerful body will face scrutiny of its management.

Poland, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, said on Friday that sports ministers from 27 nations who are due to meet in October will debate the issue of ''good governance,'' a theme provoked by ongoing corruption allegations involving FIFA.

The meeting in Krakow on October 13 and 14 follows a flurry of meetings this month between European authorities and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the chairman of the European Club Association. The group, based in Switzerland, represents about 200 of the continent's teams, including AC Milan, Manchester United and Barcelona.

Rummenigge, a former German striker and chief executive of the German club Bayern Munich has been steadily ratcheting up his criticism of FIFA and its president, Sepp Blatter. Earlier this week, Rummenigge gave a scathing interview to The Guardian newspaper in England suggesting that the clubs should revolt because ''I don't accept any longer that we should be guided by people who are not serious and clean.''

His words were directed against the long-serving Mr. Blatter, who was recently re-elected to lead the organization that has been reeling from corruption allegations against senior officials. More than a third of FIFA's 24-member executive board has been suspended or accused of wrongdoing in the past two years.

The tensions between the football clubs and FIFA are also heightened by disputes over the number of national team matches scheduled by FIFA, shared decision-making and revenues from television sponsorship contracts.

In the past, their arguments seemed to surface yearly and then fade away, but this time the disagreements are more profound because of FIFA's battered image over bribery scandals and the selection of World Cup hosts, according to experts and insiders.

''The clubs are stronger now than they have been in the past,'' said Thomas Kurth, the former general manager of G-14, a breakaway group of top soccer clubs that later made peace with FIFA in 2008.

''There are more significant reasons to voice their concerns,'' Kurth said. ''There are too many elements to call this the annual summer shouting match.''

The tensions come as FIFA and the European Club Association are establishing their positions on various issues in advance of the expiration in 2014 of an existing agreement between them and the European soccer governing body, UEFA.

When that agreement expires, the clubs would not have to release their players for international exhibition matches or tournaments.

It was the European Football Club that sought meetings with authorities to raise concerns that FIFA is making decisions without consulting the clubs.

Jakub Kwiatowski, a spokesman for Adam Giersz, Poland's minister of sport, said the European Football Club raised the issue of sports management during a meeting in Warsaw this month, and the sports ministers will discuss the issue at their meeting in October.

''We are plain that our priorities are good governance in sport,'' he said. ''When there are allegations of corruption, it's a big problem.''

The European Football Club also held a meeting earlier this month with Androulla Vassiliou, the European commissioner responsible for sports, according to her spokesman, Dennis Abbot.

''If the sports bodies are not doing their jobs properly — and we are not saying that is the case — there may be ways that we can bring pressure to bear,'' Mr. Abbot said.

Some FIFA observers said the soccer clubs had long been reluctant to take on FIFA, but now sense it is vulnerable because of the corruption allegations.

''The clubs have reached a state of maturity so that they are willing to use their muscles,'' said Guido Tognoni, a former FIFA executive. ''FIFA is not as strong as everybody thinks it is. It is just like the Catholic Church. As long as you obey it, it works. But if people don't obey, it doesn't work.''


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