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Overhaul needed to stop talent drain, says Champagne

Jerome Champagne (R), FIFA's director for international relations, attend a meeting with Kuwaiti Clubs in Kuwait February 9, 2008. REUTERS/T
Jerome Champagne (R), FIFA's director for international relations, attend a meeting with Kuwaiti Clubs in Kuwait February 9, 2008. REUTERS/T

By Brian Homewood

ZURICH (Reuters) - Football has reached the point where it must choose between becoming an elitist sport, dominated by a handful of rich clubs and leagues, or a universal one, according to former FIFA presidential advisor Jerome Champagne.

The Frenchman, who worked in various senior positions including advisor to president Sepp Blatter during 11 years at FIFA, said the sport needed a radical overhaul to help it stop the drain of talent to a few rich European clubs and to help it flourish worldwide.

The former diplomat said that even once powerful clubs such as Portugal's Sporting have become suppliers of players for the major European leagues while fans in many countries follow England's Premier league more closely than their own championship.

"We tend to misrepresent the game by thinking the game is about the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo," Champagne told Reuters.

"In reality, it is about players whose salaries are not paid and clubs who are on the verge of bankruptcy.

"The majority of football is today facing this crisis while the wealthy are becoming wealthier," added Champagne, who has not ruled out running for the FIFA presidency himself when Blatter's fourth mandate expires in 2015.

"I always quote the example of Sporting Lisbon. They had to sell (Manchester United winger) Nani and (Real Madrid forward) Cristiano Ronaldo to bigger clubs, but just think what they could have achieved if they had stayed a little longer.

"The reality is that for two percent of privileged clubs or competitions, you have 98 percent in the opposite situation.

"Salaries are paid irregularly, when they're paid at all, and that creates a situation where the player is in a weak situation and makes him a possible target for match-fixing mafia.

"The system has taken us towards an elitist trend which is making football look like basketball, where two or three Western European club competitions could become like the NBA," he said.

Champagne said that, while clubs in South America and Africa have long been reduced to the role of suppliers of talent, they had now been joined by the smaller European countries.

"The sucking of players into Europe means that African leagues, and also others, lose their best talents at a younger age," he said.

BIGGER GAP

"So the local leagues are deprived of their talents, which means fewer people in the stadiums, less money, and less interest for local television stations.

"There is more money today in African football than 20 years ago but the gap with Europe has increased. Before, the feeder continents were South America and Africa, but now this trend of dividing between receivers and providers is inside Europe itself.

"It is clear today that even clubs from countries like France, apart from Paris St Germain, Netherlands, and Hungary, it's over. These countries are providers."

This led to paradoxes such as fans watching foreign tournaments rather than local ones.

"The local leagues have to sell rights to cable television to make money. Look at a country like Peru, where only one million households have access to cable.

"At the same time, other leagues are broadcast free-to-air because they have made so much money at home that they can sell at a cheaper price, so a young boy of 12 will see more European football then local football."

Champagne said the concentration of wealth meant that competitions such as the Champions League had become predictable.

"I remember when I was a teenager and we had the draw for European competition. When we drew a Polish club, when we drew Dundee United or Glasgow Rangers, or CSKA Sofia, we were scared. Now, you have a small group of clubs more or less guaranteed to reach the final stages."

Champagne said that FIFA could potentially play a role in leveling the playing field. However, focus on FIFA recently has been on the corruption scandals which had engulfed the governing body.

"Scandals have always existed in football," he said. "We should re-focus on the wider issue which is which kind of football do we want for the 21st century, elitist or universal? Some of these scandals have been diverting attention of the good things FIFA is doing."

Champagne pointed out that, while FIFA was heavily criticized, it re-invested most of its money into the development of football.

However, he said it needed to go further and proposed levies on international transfers and television rights to fund the development of the game and the strengthening of clubs and leagues outside the Europe.

(Reporting by Brian Homewood, editing by Justin Palmer)

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