Football: Transfer System on Brink of Meltdown ; Inside Football; Elite Desperate to Protect Power Base as European Commission Threatens to Outlaw Fees and Reward Smaller Clubs

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FOOTBALL'S WORLD governing body, Fifa, meets in Zurich today to thrash out proposals designed to head off the threat by the European Commission - suddenly alarmingly urgent - to plunge football into chaos by abolishing the transfer system for players. The EC, which has accused Fifa of being slow to respond, emphasised this week that while it is prepared to discuss "constructive" proposals aimed at rewarding smaller clubs for youth development, it retains the option to rule the current system illegal.

"That would be the worst-case scenario," said Christophe Forax, an EC spokesman. "After a long delay, we hope to receive Fifa's proposals soon. But if we do not, we are prepared to act. Our view is that the current system breaches EU law on free movement of labour, is not fair to players or smaller clubs, and should therefore be abolished."

The football authorities here and world-wide have shown rare unity over the issue, reacting with horror at the prospect of a free- for-all, in which players would be free to leave clubs while under contract without transfer fees having to be paid. Fifa said the prospect would wreak "irreparable damage on football everywhere".

The Premier League, Football Association and Football League have established a joint working party urgently looking for solutions. The Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, has warned of "total anarchy" and called on the Government to oppose the Commission. Arsenal's vice- chairman, David Dein, said this week that abolition of the transfer system would be a "disaster", arguing that smaller clubs would be particularly hurt.

Yet behind such feverish forecasts of doom beats the steady drum of financial self-interest. Premier League clubs are increasingly signing ready-made overseas stars rather than filtering money down to smaller Nationwide League clubs. Neither Chelsea nor Arsenal, both laden with expensive foreign players, have proved themselves benefactors to smaller clubs via the transfer market. Since Arsene Wenger took over as Arsenal manager in September 1996, he has signed only two Nationwide League players: Matthew Upson from Luton and Jermaine Pennant from Notts County, both for under pounds 2m.

The net amount paid in transfer fees by the Premiership to the Nationwide League last season was only pounds 27m; around half the pounds 53m Arsenal have received for the sales of Nicolas Anelka, Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars alone. While big clubs plead publicly their concern for the smaller clubs, privately Premiership sources concede they are horrified at the prospect of being unable to cash in by selling expensive players themselves.

The EC sees this acutely, arguing that the current system operates largely to the benefit of the rich clubs, and provides unpredictable reward to smaller clubs for youth development. Forax said the Commission had received five official complaints, three from clubs and two from players' associations, and many smaller clubs have expressed dissatisfaction. "The current system works largely to make profits for the big clubs. We don't want to destroy football. We want to see a sound system, which genuinely maintains solidarity between clubs and encourages them to train young players."

Even on football's side, the argument is not clear cut. Following Luis Figo's corporate acquisition-sized pounds 37m transfer from Barcelona to Real Madrid this summer, few wholly defend the current system. "We do think spiralling fees are a huge problem for the game," said a Fifa spokesman. "Clubs are taking on debts, and their hunger for more money puts pressure on the game at large. We are keen to find a more manageable solution."

Fifa is expected to propose a system of compensation to smaller clubs for developing players, involving different payments at different ages. They are known to favour outlawing transfers, particularly internationally, before players are 18, following the unsavoury cases recently of young Africans brought to Europe en masse in the hope that some might make the grade at football. …