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Volume 6 No. 215

International Football

Plans to merge the top divisions of the Russian and Ukrainian football leagues "have won further support from club owners keen to replicate the commercial success of the English Premier League and Europe-wide Champions League," according to Kavanagh, Chazan & Olearchyk of the FINANCIAL TIMES. A blueprint for a regional super league across the post-soviet Commonwealth of Independent States "resurfaced before Christmas backed by an offer of $5B in potential sponsorship from Gazprom." Although initially opposed by FIFA President Sepp Blatter, UEFA "has so far left the door open to a reconfiguration of league systems across the two countries." Top Russian clubs including CSKA Moscow, Zenit St. Petersburg and Anzhi Makhachkala "have already given their backing for negotiations to create a 'super league.'" Though more reticent to give their full support for abandoning an independent league, Ukrainian club owners said that "some kind of merger could make commercial sense." Shakhtar Donetsk, owned by Ukraine's richest man Rinat Akhmetov, said that "the merger plan would need to be seen to benefit Ukrainian football in general rather than just top club owners" (FINANCIAL TIMES, 3/24).

A recent conflict between Spanish club FC Barcelona and FIFA over int'l transfers of young players, involving a number of Korean teenage prospects, "doubles as a splash of cold water on overzealous sports parents," according to Kim Tong-hyung of the KOREA TIMES. Barcelona "is appealing FIFA bans on six of its youth players, including 15-year-old Korean Lee Seung-woo, touted by some as the club’s most promising prospect since Argentine superstar Lionel Messi." While Barcelona’s wealth in under-aged talent includes many players scouted outside of Spain, FIFA "now accuses the club of violating its regulations on the international transfer of minors, designed to stop child trafficking and exploitation." FIFA "has been tightening control on the transfer of minors in recent years to prevent the trafficking of under-aged players, amid criticism that European football clubs were luring youngsters from Third World countries with promises of lucrative contracts, only to abandon them if they don’t pan out." Barcelona counters that "it provides quality education for its minors at its La Masia training facility and that Spanish law allows minors to live and study in the country if they are accompanied by their legal guardian" (KOREA TIMES, 3/22).

Although rumors have circulated that China's embattled football coach, Jose Antonio Camacho, will be fired due to the team's sluggish record during his tenure, some reports claim the Chinese FA "cannot afford to void his contract prematurely," according to the CHINA DAILY. According to the contract, the Spanish coach will be at the helm until the end of next year, with an annual income of €4.3M ($5.55M), and there is "no clause in that contract stating he must lead the team to the Asian Cup finals." That means if the CFA wanted to replace him after Friday's second qualifying match, "it would have had to pay out the remaining money," which is close to €8M ($10.4M). The CFA's major sponsor, Wanda Group, invited the coach to take over the national job in '11 and covered his payment, but it is "not known if it is willing to help the association in such a manner again" (CHINA DAILY, 3/24).

David Beckham's new appointment as the first "global ambassador" for Chinese football looks like another nice sinecure for football's biggest one-man brand, the reality might be tougher, according to Jonathan Kaiman of the London GUARDIAN. Critics say that even Beckham "may be unable to improve the state of Chinese football, an enterprise so burdened by corruption and general ineptitude that even official media treat it as an embarrassment." News agency Xinhua said, "Beckham has no connection with the Chinese league. Now he comes to sell its image instead of actually playing. How can he represent the league? Do we need him?" Rowan Simons, the author of Bamboo Goalposts said, "I think they have tried everything to sort out China's football problems and they can't think of any solutions, so they are trying to divert attention by bringing Beckham in." Beckham's itinerary in China consists primarily of brief visits to Chinese schools and club teams in Beijing, the coastal city Qingdao and the sprawling inland metropolis Wuhan. Beckham left open the possibility of someday playing for a Chinese team. Beckham also distanced himself from Chinese football's "less salubrious associations." He said, "I'm not a politician, and I'm not involved in any scandals and corruption that's gone on in the past. I'm here for the future" (GUARDIAN, 3/22). XINHUA reported the new appointment is seen as an attempt by the Chinese Super League "to further popularize itself home and abroad and inspire young people to participate in the sport." Beckham's schedule in Beijing, Qingdao and Wuhan "included visits to local schools and football clubs, brief kickabouts with young students" -- still wearing his suit, tie and shiny formal shoes -- as well as news conferences (XINHUA, 3/24).

Iraq will be allowed to play friendly matches at home again following approval from FIFA. The reprieve does not apply to World Cup qualifiers for which Iraq uses Doha as its home base (REUTERS, 3/22). ... Real Madrid is planning to sue Eufemiano Fuentes, the Spanish doctor at the center of a blood doping scandal who claims the Spanish football club owes him money. In a statement, the club stated: "Facing the attempt by Fuentes to mislead, clearly with bad intention, public opinion regarding the nature of his relationship with the club Real Madrid are going to take immediate legal action against Fuentes" (London TELEGRAPH, 3/23).