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Gaul cries foul at TV soccer deals

PARIS — Gallic broadcasters and their associates in the French soccer world are quaking over a vast probe into the sport’s murky multimillion-dollar finances.

The probe comes barely two months after Canal Plus secured French first-division soccer rights for a record E600 million ($793 million) a year — the highest sum ever paid for a European soccer league’s games.

Finance Ministry investigators have been quietly delving into alleged financial shenanigans involving the soccer, advertising and television worlds since June.

But their efforts made front-page news after raids Feb. 17 on the offices of some 20-odd soccer clubs, professional orgs and broadcasters.

During the swoop, Gallic pay TV operators Canal Plus and TPS and commercial broadcaster TF1’s subsid Eurosport all opened their filing cabinets for investigators, who went off laden with documents.

The same day, former Canal Plus topper Pierre Lescure spent three hours answering an examining magistrate’s questions about soccer transfers by Canal Plus-owned Paris Saint Germain.

The club sold 30 players between 1998 and 2003, including Brazilian star Ronaldinho, who was transferred to Barcelona in 2003 for around $26.5 million. Investigators want to find out whether the complex deals involved illegal kickbacks.

The Finance Ministry and fraud squad both are digging into Canal Plus’ payment of $211 million to Club Europe, a group of six top French soccer clubs that includes Paris Saint Germain.

Canal Plus already held the broadcasting rights to the teams’ matches via a global deal with the Professional Football League. But it paid out the extra cash between 1999 and 2003 just in case the rules changed and teams started negotiating their own rights.

What investigators want to know is where that money ended up — and whether the presence of Club Europe bosses on the Professional Football League’s board gave Canal Plus an unfair advantage when it bid for league broadcasting rights.

The National Football Federation was among the orgs searched Feb 17. However, its prexy, Jean-Pierre Escalettes, who took office last month, isn’t worried by events. “If illegal things happened, the legal system will say so,” he says. “We must be positive and say that all of this will allow soccer to make a clean, healthy and solid start.”

The Finance Ministry also is probing Sportfive, a joint-venture sports rights trading company launched in 2001 at the height of Vivendi Universal’s expansion binge by Canal Plus, RTL Group and omnipresent Gallic soccer biz guru Jean-Claude Darmon.

The company, which posted revenues of $777 million in 2002, was sold to a venture capital group last year. But Darmon, who made his fortune by being the first to market ad space at French soccer stadiums, continues to have a hand in Gallic sports affairs via a private consultancy firm.

A ministry official told Variety it could be a year before the probe is complete and the Ministry’s Competition Council decides what, if any, action to take. The findings could spark further criminal investigations.

In the meantime, Gaul’s small shareholders body APPAC, a continual thorn in the side of Vivendi Universal, is keeping up the pressure on Canal Plus.

APPAC has lodged a complaint with magistrates, asking for a probe into the amount Canal Plus paid, which surpassed rival TPS’ bid by more than E300 million.

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