- Associated Press - Friday, August 26, 2011

MONACO (AP) - It’s not just European governments that are mired in debt. Financial problems are increasingly affecting the most beloved institutions on the continent _ soccer teams.

Work stoppages, club bankruptcies and spiraling debts are all adding up in soccer’s current debt column, even to the point of seriously affecting play on the field.

In Spain and Italy, soccer superpowers that won the last two World Cups, season-opening matches have been lost because players refused to play due to contract disputes.

It was all too much Friday for Michel Platini, the self-confessed soccer romantic who heads UEFA, the governing body for European soccer.

“There are a lot of red lights flashing,” said Platini, a French playing great who is widely admired as a world soccer leader. “I am afraid for the future of football (soccer). If (soccer) football can’t go ahead because players aren’t being paid, that is a huge worry.”

Platini’s warning was delivered in his annual ‘state of the union’ briefing on European soccer, the day after the draw for the continent’s heavily watched Champions League tournament.

That he spoke in Monte Carlo was an unintended irony, highlighting the casino-spending culture that has brought so many clubs to their knees even during an overall 21st century soccer boom.

The Champions League, UEFA’s marquee competition, is so globally popular with fans, broadcasters and sponsors that UEFA will distribute at least euro750 million ($1.08 billion) in prize money and bonuses to the 32 clubs taking part.

Still, the money available to those clubs _ just four each from England and Spain; three from Italy and Germany _ helps disguise serious financial problems below Europe’s elite level.

Barcelona and Manchester United each got more than euro50 million ($72 million) from UEFA’s prize pot for reaching the Champions League final last season. That helped the two globally-branded clubs to rank second and third behind Real Madrid in Forbes magazine’s 2011 Rich List ranking clubs by revenue. Madrid raked in $537 million.

All three clubs carry nine-figure debts, a subject that deeply upsets Platini, yet the three can generate revenue to service them.

Man United tapped a new income stream this month by selling sponsor space on its warmup outfits for 40 million pounds ($66 million) over four years _ worth more than the main shirt deal for all but a few clubs. Barcelona and Madrid also benefit from a skewed system of distributing Spanish TV revenues.

“Fifty percent of the TV rights go to Barca and Madrid, while the other 18 have to fight for the rest of the pie,” University of Barcelona finance professor Jose Maria Gay told The Associated Press.

“(The Spanish league) needs to centralize its TV rights, instead of (having Madrid and Barcelona) negotiating their own deals, and then exploit the rights and sell a product throughout the whole world” like the English Premier League, Gay said.

What Gay described as “a dangerous situation” came to pass this month when players in Spain’s top flight La Liga league went on strike to reclaim euro50 million ($72 million) in back wages owed to more than 200 players.

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