Page last updated at 04:03 GMT, Wednesday, 26 November 2008

'Hands off English football'

By Chris Mason
Europe correspondent, BBC News

Cesc Fabregas
The new Arsenal captain Fabregas was signed at the age of 16

There is growing opposition to European plans that would ban British football clubs from transferring players aged under 18.

The proposals are due to be discussed by Europe's sports ministers later this week - alongside the idea of having a European-wide super regulator that would be able to impose rules on clubs' debts.

The government, the Premier League and Euro MPs from all the main British parties flatly reject the case for a new authority.

And they will be relieved that Michel Platini, the President of European football's governing body Uefa, has backed away from the idea, originally proposed by the French.

But stopping clubs transferring under-18s is still up for negotiation.

It is argued that very young players, particularly from Africa and South America, need protection to ensure, for instance, they get sufficient education.

We should celebrate the success of English football clubs, not apologise for it
Chris Heaton Harris, MEP

Premier League clubs accept this but are adamant they should still be able to sign young players like Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas.

Fabregas, who is Spanish, was signed by the North London club when he was just 16.

"We will call for a ban on underage transfers, and to stop the raiding of academies worldwide," said William Gaillard, Uefa's director of communications and Platini's special adviser.

"We feel this is a really dangerous situation which borders on a violation of human rights."

But Richard Scudamore, chief executive of the Premier League, insisted that while he was wholly supportive of a tightening up of the rules, a blanket ban would be unnecessarily restrictive.

This row, and the broader issue of the legitimacy or otherwise of a European sports regulator, is provoking a strong political reaction.

There is growing irritation among British MEPs in Brussels at what many see as unnecessary meddling in national sport.

One Liberal Democrat told me it was bad enough when sport and politics mixed, let alone sport and the European Union.

'Dangerous game'

And the Conservatives agree.

"We should celebrate the success of English football clubs, not apologise for it," Tory MEP Chris Heaton Harris, who represents the East Midlands, said.

Mr Heaton Harris, who chairs the European Parliament Sports Group, added: "If you give the European Union any kind of power over sport it will be very difficult to get it back.

"Uefa are playing a dangerous game if they think they can curb the success of Premier League clubs by appealing to the EU.

"British Ministers must stick up for sports governing bodies and English football clubs and tell their European counterparts to keep their hands off British sport."

If that is a message Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe was not aware of a few days ago, he is now.

Leading figures in football, cricket, rugby union, rugby league and tennis have met Mr Sutcliffe to register their opposition.

And the British government has made its opposition clear to French Sports Minister Bernard Laporte, who has been pushing the idea.

As the current holders of the rotating Presidency of the EU, the French have been anything but inactive in recent months.

These latest proposals, to be discussed in Biarritz in France on Thursday and Friday, are likely to provoke very heated debate.

And there is very little, if any, support in British sport or politics for much of what is being suggested.

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