Old Firm England hopes hit as Platini opposes plan

OLD FIRM hopes of eventually breaking away from Scottish football to join a cross-border league received another blow yesterday when Uefa president Michel Platini voiced his opposition to the resurrection of the old Soviet league.

“It’s a very difficult issue but I’m not very much in favour of it,” Platini told a news conference after Uefa’s executive committee meeting in Sofia.

In December, several top Russian clubs including champions Zenit St Petersburg, big spenders Anzhi Makhachkala and CSKA Moscow unveiled a plan to break away from Russia’s top flight and start a multi-national league of up to 16 teams next year.

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If the plan is successful it may set a precedent for other European nations to follow suit – and may offer a potential escape route from the Scottish league set-up for Rangers and Celtic. Rangers chief executive Charles Green has been particularly keen to explore all options available to the club, which restarted life in the bottom tier last season as a ‘newco’ after the club went into liquidation and was denied a place in the Scottish Premier League in its new guise.

The ‘Soviet’ plan called for six or seven elite Russian clubs such as Zenit, Anzhi, CSKA and their Moscow rivals Spartak, Dynamo and Lokomotiv to join four or five top Ukrainian teams including Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev, plus one or two from Belarus, Armenia or Azerbaijan to make up the new league.

“Certain leagues are in deep financial difficulties and it’s a matter of survival for them,” said Platini, who has at least expressed a willingness to look at each case on its individual merits.

“They want to develop their football and have a better chance to sell their commercial rights.

“But that is not the case with Russia,” the 57-year-old Frenchman added. “Russia is very strong.”

The proposed merger is a direct response to Europe’s top leagues growing in strength and the Russians remain convinced that unification is the only way they can compete.

Supporters of the new league, including companies like Gazprom, say it would drive enhanced sponsorship and television revenues, allowing teams to better meet Uefa’s financial fair play rules.

European football’s governing body has allowed Belgium and Netherlands to hold a combined women’s championship known as the BeNe-League on an experimental basis this season. “We made a test in Belgium and Netherlands with a women’s league and we have to wait for one or two years to see how it works and then a decision will be taken by the executive committee,” Platini said.

A similar plan was announced by clubs from Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Hungary and Bulgaria at a meeting in Sofia in 2011, but progress has fizzled out as they wait for approval from Uefa. Plans for a Czech-Slovak league also appear to have hit the buffers.

At the wide-ranging meeting Platini also admitted that Uefa faces a challenge over potentially dull matches in the qualifying tournament for the expanded Euro 2016.

The decision to raise the number of finalists from 16 to 24 countries means that almost half the 53 European nations will qualify for the tournament in France.

Platini defended the decision but conceded that it will mean some “less interesting matches” with many of the qualifying groups seeing three of the six teams going through – and that is an issue for the European governing body which is now selling the TV rights centrally.

Platini said: “This was a decision of the Uefa Congress to go to 24 teams after a request made by Ireland and Scotland – the vast majority of national associations wanted us to go to 24. I thought about it a great deal to see if the quantity would affect the quality and I think that we could have 24 very good teams in Europe more or less of the same calibre so I don’t think it will change the quality.

“The only small challenge has to do with the qualifiers as there will be some less interesting matches. There will be groups of six with two or three going through so the qualifying will be less decisive but the tournament will be just as interesting.” Europe has 13 places for World Cup finals and Platini said that having almost twice as many for the European Championship was “extremely important for the general happiness of the national associations in terms of promoting football in their countries”.

Uefa’s executive committee also agreed the bidding rules and timetable for Euro 2020, which is being held in 13 different countries across the continent. Cities can bid for either three group matches and a quarter-final, or the semi-finals and final. The full bid regulations will be published on 26 April, bids submitted by 11 September, bid dossiers submitted by 25 April next year and a decision the following September.

The FA has said it will bid for Wembley to host the semi-finals and final, while Cardiff, Glasgow and Dublin are all set to bid for group matches. The candidates for Uefa’s executive committee were also confirmed and Manchester United’s outgoing chief executive David Gill will be one of nine candidates for eight seats. Six of these are standing for re-election with the new candidates being Gill, Germany’s Wolfgang Niersbach and Portugal’s Fernando Gomes.