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Sunday, June 1, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

Rumor mill churns on Beckham, Wenger


LONDON -- The truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction and the ongoing Spanish inquisition involving David Beckham and Arsene Wenger is becoming, to borrow a line from Alice In Wonderland, curiouser and curiouser.

Christopher Davies

L'Equipe "broke" the story earlier this week that the Arsenal manager met with Real president Florentino Perez and Jorge Valdano, the club's sporting director, in Paris last Friday. Or did he?

The Catalan press, never slow at doing all it can to unsettle the team from Madrid, ran the story over the weekend, part of its destabilizing campaign which gathered momentum after Juventus beat Real in the Champions League semifinals.

The Barcelona-based media began to print stories that Real coach Vicente Del Bosque would not have his contract renewed, which culminated with reports of Wenger meeting the Real officials at Orly Airport in Paris and the party then leaving for a hotel.

Or did they? Antena Tres, the Madrid-based television company with close connections to Real, said that it can "categorically" state Perez and Valdano were "nowhere near" Paris last Friday and its sources say Vicente Del Bosque's contract will be renewed for one year at his current salary of 3 million euros ($3.6 million).

"The situation of soccer has changed," said Valdano. "The moment for tightening the belt has arrived and this message must be understood from the coach to the very last player."

In repeating his commitment to Arsenal where he has two more years remaining on his current contract, Wenger never confirmed or denied he met the Real delegation -- "I met lots of people," he said, surely aware that the ambiguity of such a remark would have obvious repercussions.

However, if talks about taking Wenger to Madrid had taken place without Arsenal's blessing it would have amounted to an illegal approach which could land Real in trouble with FIFA, though one report suggested the manager told the F.A. Cup winners he would be having discussions with Perez. That seems a hard one to swallow.

However -- hypothetically -- should the Spanish club want to discuss a job with the Arsenal manager or anyone, it seems strange that they would meet him at Orly Airport, where the walls have ears and eyes.

Could it be that the story started in Catalunya ended in Paris -- and is it just a political game which L'Equipe became involved in?

And while honor can be in short supply in football, Wenger is not a man to break a contract. Arsenal had to wait until he had finished his agreement with Nagoya Grampus Eight before joining Arsenal in the autumn of 1996.

Wenger has battled hard to ensure players such as Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires commit themselves to long-term contracts at Highbury so it seems extremely unlikely he would do this and jump ship.

His "I met lots of people" remark was no doubt designed to keep Arsenal on its toes when he meets the board to discuss how much money is available for team strengthening this summer.

Meanwhile, Pedro de Felipe, Del Bosque's agent, was at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium on Tuesday on behalf of Jorge Mendes who represents FC Porto playmaker Deco, who was outstanding in the UEFA Cup final against Celtic.

De Felipe was assured by Valdano that negotiations about all contracts -- Del Bosque's, Fernando Hierro's and Michel Salgado's -- would be held after the end of the Spanish season next month because the club did not want to distract the team which is neck-and-neck with Real Sociedad at the top of the table.

Meanwhile, the elections at Barcelona -- the club not the region -- will soon be held and the dozen or so hopefuls have been doing all they can to gain support.

Joan Laporte has claimed he has an option on Beckham for a deal worth 35 million euros ($42 million) through to June 30th and until that date Manchester United cannot negotiate with any other club. And the cow jumped over the moon.

Laporte is still only a pre-candidate -- the official candidates will not be known until next week -- but his assertion that he has a pre-contract signed for Beckham will probably not harm his cause.

A report from Catalunya also alleged a second pre-candidate, Sandro Rossell, was following in Laporte's footsteps and Beckham was on his manifesto too.

Continuing the theme, another pre-candidate Josep Martinez-Rovira sent two emissaries to Manchester to negotiate with Rodger Linse, the agent for Ruud van Nistelrooy.

The objective was apparently to reduce the 60 million euros ($72 million) valuation United would have on the Dutch striker, though Patrick Kluivert could be used in a part-exchange deal.

At which point the story seems to return to Alice in Wonderland.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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