Europe split by financial iron curtain, says Champagne

BERNE Wed Apr 23, 2014 4:37pm BST

Jerome Champagne speaks during a news conference in London January 20, 2014. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

Jerome Champagne speaks during a news conference in London January 20, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett

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BERNE (Reuters) - European football is more divided today than it was during the Cold War because of the unequal distribution of wealth among its clubs, FIFA presidential candidate Jerome Champagne said.

"During the Cold War, football was able to unite a deeply divided Europe and nothing prevented clubs from playing together from either side of the Iron Curtain," said Champagne in the third part of his manifesto.

"In 2014, in a Europe where the Berlin Wall has fallen and which most of its citizens can crisscross freely, clubs from the West and the East do not play football together any longer at the top level.

"In a little more than 20 years, football has replaced the political iron curtain, which never blocked anyone from playing together, with a financial curtain dividing Europe in two.

"It is a two-speed football with an increasingly unbridgeable gap separating the ultra-elite of the wealthiest ones and the remaining 99 percent of clubs."

Champagne, a former French diplomat who held senior posts at FIFA until leaving in 2010, pointed out that Hungarian side Videoton reached the 1984-85 UEFA Cup final, beating Manchester United and Real Madrid on the way.

The 55-year-old, who announced his intention in January to stand in next year's FIFA presidential election, added that one year later Steaua Bucharest beat Barcelona in the European Cup final. Yet that would not be possible nowadays, he said.

"Traditionally strong football countries such as Poland, Romania, Serbia, Hungary, to name but a few, see their champions celebrating their national title on June 1 and being eliminated from the Champions League (qualifiers) at the end of July or at best in mid-August," he said.

He added that it was not just Eastern European countries who suffered from the polarisation.

"Countries which were previously competitive at club level now see their clubs relegated to a position of talent-producers for the wealthiest ones, abandoning their chances of success on the field in exchange for badly-needed funds to survive.

WEALTH GAP

"This is obviously the case of Dutch (notably Ajax Amsterdam), French and Scandinavian clubs, among others."

Champagne, who avoided direct criticism of European soccer's governing body UEFA and its president Michel Platini, said the Champions League was dominated by the same teams over and over again, creating a snowball effect as they collected the lion's share of the prize money.

"The Champions League is fully competitive only at the level of the quarter-finals where all the present clubs have more or less the same budgets," he said.

He added that only nine clubs from four countries have reached the Champions league final in the last nine years and that 10 teams have reached the round of 16 for the last two seasons in a row.

"At national level, the amount of money earned from Champions League participation distorts the national competitions and creates an unbridgeable gap between the clubs playing in the Champions League regularly and the other ones," he said.

Champagne called on UEFA to reform the money-distribution system which, he said, "reinforces the imbalance of an already uneven playing field."

"UEFA as Champions League organiser has the primary responsibility to act," he said, adding that FIFA also had to co-operate to "correct this polarisation."

He said that the wealth of elite European clubs also had a detrimental effect on national leagues in South America, Asia and Africa, who also acted as suppliers of talent.

Champagne suggested that UEFA should re-assess the number of clubs per country in the Champions League and consider opening up more places to clubs from smaller leagues.

He also proposed a luxury tax, the increase of solidarity mechanisms and training compensation paid to smaller clubs and changes in the way television money is distributed.

"The current situation does not pit Europe against the rest of the world as was the case some decades ago," he said. "It is today a split between the one percent and the remaining 99 percent which divides European football.

"To correct that destructive trend is also a unique opportunity to reconcile FIFA and UEFA for good after decades of misunderstanding and sometimes sterile bickering."

(Reporting By Brian Homewood; Editing by Pritha Sarkar)

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