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Soccer-Club v country battle begins in Belgian court

Written by: Staff

CHARLEROI, Belgium, Mar 20 (Reuters) A landmark court case pitching world soccer's ruling body against Europe's richest clubs opened today after FIFA turned down an 11th-hour settlement offer by Belgian club Charleroi.

First division Charleroi, backed by the G14 group representing 18 of the top clubs in Europe, went ahead with the case on Monday, seeking compensation after one of its players was injured on international duty.

''We are in court today because FIFA were not willing to reach a compromise out of court with the club,'' Charleroi's lawyer Jean-Pierre Deprez told reporters ahead of the hearing.

Deprez said Charleroi chairman Abbas Bayat met FIFA President Sepp Blatter late on Friday but they were unable to reach agreement.

''We will drop our case if we receive compensation. The figure is 615,000 euros,'' Deprez said.

The Belgian side are seeking compensation after Moroccan Abdelmajid Oulmers was ruled out for eight months after playing in a friendly against Burkina Faso in November 2004.

Charleroi say the loss of the player hindered their chances of success in the Belgian league and cup.

FIFA says there is no link between the injury of Oulmers and where Charleroi finished in the league last season, fifth.

The most likely outcome, according to sources on both sides, is a referral of the case to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

This was a request of the G14 in their submissions.

''We don't want to go to war,'' G14 general manager Thomas Kurth said.

''We will accept of course any decision and abide by the law, but how we react to the decision depends on the detail of it.'' He said a decision before the World Cup in Germany, starting on June 9, was ''unlikely''.

DECISION The judges have between 30 and 90 days to make their decision.

''Due to the importance of the case, they are aiming to reach a decision in about half the time,'' a court official said.

Opening statements from Charleroi began at 1900 hrs IST in front of a packed courtroom. A panel of three judges led by the chief judge, Jean-Philippe Lebeau, will hear the case.

Many of FIFA's national associations were listed in the court papers as ''defendants'' although three of Europe's biggest associations - England, France and Germany - were not listed.

The G14 has joined Olympique Lyon in a similar action over defender Eric Abidal who broke his foot during a France friendly.

Clubs pay the wages of players, which exceed 175,000 dollars a week for the top performers.

Under FIFA rules they must release any player called up by a national association for matches, both qualifying games for the leading continental tournaments and friendlies, that are part of an international calendar put together by FIFA.

G14 says the regulations ''are illegal and an abuse of FIFA's dominant position'' under European Union law.

''The current regulations are written by the federations, for the federations and these regulations favour federations over clubs,'' Kurth said.

His organisation is seeking three principles.

''Firstly, clubs and national associations should be protected from the cost of player injuries. Secondly, clubs should get some reasonable compensation for the contribution they make to international tournaments,'' he said.

''Thirdly, a harmonized international calendar for club on national team football must be mutually agreed between clubs and federations.'' REUTERS SY KN2333

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