France's Big Four hungry for more power

PARIS - When the executives of four top Ligue 1 clubs dined at a select Paris restaurant last week, the main item on the menu was probably not scallop carpaccio with oyster sorbet and caviar but more likely French League president Frederic Thiriez.

Around the table were Jean-Michel Aulas, Jean-Claude Dassier and Robin Leproux, chairmen of Olympique Lyon, Olympique Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain respectively, as well as Nicolas de Tavernost, head of TV group M6, the owners of Girondins Bordeaux.

Although they might have ordered the carpaccio, a starter costing 85 euros at the three-star Michelin restaurant of the Hotel Bristol, where the dinner took place, the discussion centred around how they could have more say in Ligue 1 affairs.

The meeting was not secret, the four seeing each other periodically, and all four denied plotting against Thiriez, although a source close to one of the four did say a proper meeting between the four and Thiriez was scheduled for later this month.

"I am the president of the League, which represents 44 clubs (from Ligue 1, Ligue 2 and a few from National, the equivalent of the third division) and it is normal that there are differences and sometimes arguments between the big clubs and the small ones", Thiriez a smart, 58-year-old trained lawyer with a neatly-combed moustache, told Reuters.

"I am there to find a solution everybody agrees with, it's a simple as that," he added.

The four have had many arguments with the head of the Professional Football League (LFP), most recently about scheduling issues, but also about television rights and disciplinary matters.

The latest argument was about a league game between Lyon and Grenoble last month, the date of which was changed at Bordeaux's request, the French champions saying it was not fair for Lyon to have an extra rest day before hosting Girondins in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final.

CROWDED CALENDAR

Bordeaux and Lyon did squabble a bit over this, but both were particularly careful to blame the LFP for the way they handled the problem.

More generally, the four are upset about a crowded calendar, due partly to the addition from the 1994/95 season of the French League Cup, organised by the LFP and not as popular as the French Cup, run by the French Football Federation (FFF), which is also responsible for the national team and amateur game.

The LFP has repeatedly ignored calls from the top clubs to make their life easier by cutting the number of top-flight sides from 20 to 18.

The top issue, however, is not the calendar but television rights, which the LFP negotiates with television channels and are the main source of income for the clubs.

The Big Four, whose games attract the higher audiences, want a bigger share and even dream of marketing the rights on their own, while the LFP says the money should be redistributed fairly and benefit to all clubs, big and small.

"It's a permanent debate, how the rights should be shared out, and that's one of our duties," Thiriez said. "It is normal for the big clubs to want more, and it is normal for smaller ones to protect their share.

"Solidarity is a hard thing to ensure, you need to make sure everybody plays ball, but that's my role. I see myself as a referee."

With Ligue 1 not being the most high-profile league in the world, the LFP struggles to get from television channels the estimated 668 million euros a year it needs to allow the Ligue 1 clubs to fasten their budgets.

OWN CHANNEL

The LFP, which currently produces television footage of Ligue 1 matches and sells it to commercial channels Canal Plus and Orange Sport, is working on a project to launch its own channel from 2012.

The Big Four will no doubt like to talk to Thiriez about that, but will also raise another point, which is the need, in their view, to have the main clubs represented in the LFP's board of directors to have more influence on decision making.

"There is no plot here but just the will to meet and talk," Dassier told reporters.

"It is not normal for the big clubs not to be represented in the League's board of directors. There are some things that need to be changed in the way football is being ruled."

Another point the four are likely to mention is the LFP's feared disciplinary committee and its tendency to force clubs to play behind closed doors after crowd trouble.

PSG, who have just played three matches in a row in front of no spectators following the death last month of a fan after he was beaten up by a rival group from his own club, feel this is not the right answer.

"For me, having to play behind closed doors is a scandal," PSG coach Antoine Kombouare told reporters. "Not only the clubs are penalised, with a huge loss in potential revenue, but also the fans and the players."

The entire debate is nothing new but what has changed is the Big Four, although PSG's current position in the standings make their present in that circle somewhat intrusive, are now united and ready to confront Thiriez.

It was not the case for years, partly because of a feud between Marseille and PSG but also because of former Marseille chairman Pape Diouf's reluctance to get involved.

Now Thiriez and the Big Four have plenty to talk about, maybe over dinner at the Bristol, and if they do not like chef Eric Frechon's scallop carpaccio, they can always try French President Nicolas Sarkozy's favourite dish, macaroni stuffed with artichoke, truffles and foie gras (82 euros).

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