Where the big boys come to play!

NOT A DAY goes by when money is not at the heart of a football story on these sports pages.

It's been that way for a long time, since the first transfer fee exchanged hands between clubs. With each development in the game, from the end of the players' maximum wage, through ground- breaking shirt sponsorship deals, to TV rights bids and the Bosman ruling, the business of football has played an increasingly prominent part in the fabric of the sport.

Over the next four days football finance will not just be prominent, it will be front and centre as the movers and shakers of the world game gather in Dubai, check in to their seven-star hotels and get down to business at the ninth annual Soccerex conference and exhibition.

Labelled as the global convention for the business of football, more than 2,000 delegates from the soccer world will gather for the three-day extravaganza to buy, sell, negotiate and discuss key issues in the world game.

"It's a conference and an exhibition," says Soccerex chief executive Duncan Revie, son of the late Leeds and England manager Don. "It began its life, really, as a conference but we got so many big names it sort of segued into an exhibition. Now we've got businesses from all over the world and some of the biggest names from the football industry."

Everyone who is anyone will be there - from world governing body FIFA to Sheffield FC, the oldest football club in the world. And within those wide parameters, delegates will have the opportunity to do business with Asian and European confederations, World Cup organising committees from Germany and South Africa, national federations and leagues such as The Premier League, broadcasters and multi-national corporations.

Throw in powerhouse clubs including Chelsea, Man United, Arsenal, AC Milan, Real Madrid and Barcelona and the list of attendees confirms that this is indeed an influential gathering.

Scratch further beneath the surface and you will find practically every dimension of business person plying their trade in football.

The trade stands at the Madinat Jumeirah Hotel's exhibition hall, will offer everything from fantasy football packages to weapons detection technology and are hoping to sign off on deals totalling tens of millions of euro.

What began as a modest event at Old Trafford in 1997, has since turned into a massive hotspot for revenue generation in the football industry. Having since visited Los Angeles, London and Paris, Soccerex's home has been in Dubai and the last two years alone have seen more than e950 million worth of business done there. "Since its formation nine years ago, Soccerex has grown out of all recognition and Soccerex in Dubai is our biggest success yet," commercial director James Worrall said.

"Our mission is to support the development of the football industry by enabling organisations to learn, network and do business globally and the amount of interest around Soccerex indicates the sport is in a pretty healthy state."

Yet while football's moneymen are talking their business up, for supporters, the increasing commercialisation is an incredibly emotive issue, with every introduction of a further financial element into their beloved game seen as yet another erosion of the spirit in which it was nurtured.

The Glazer family's takeover of Man United was met by vehement opposition from a hard core of the club's supporters and individual shareholders, while the Premiership has endured a rocky start to the season amid a backdrop of widespread discontent with the product and stayaway fans. And it is not just the fans getting agitated.

The European Commission is at loggerheads with the English Premier League over the awarding of its television rights, while even football's administrators, the people who enabled this conversion to the twin pursuit of Mammon and medals, are becoming increasingly frustrated by the monster they helped create.

The latest flash-point ignited this week when UEFA president Lennart Johansson warned Europe's biggest clubs their "greed" was endangering grass-roots football. His comments came in response to demands from members of the G14 group of Europe's elite clubs, for FIFA and UEFA to pay player salaries in World Cups and European Championships. Belgian club Charleroi have taken FIFA to court, claiming that releasing players to national associations without payment is illegal.

Johansson added that if the world governing body and UEFA had to rethink their policies then money made from major tournaments would have to be diverted away from the grass-roots game. "It's a big problem that too many people see football as a business.

Away from the business exhibitors, Soccerex will highlight its status as an influential conference and talking shop by staging one of its debates in Dubai next week on this key legal battle, bringing together the leading protagonists in the argument for what should be a lively debate.

While it could be a frank exchange of views in a heated atmosphere, it is unlikely to be conducted in terms as blunt as those expressed during one of last year's panel discussions.

When Ian Todd, Nike's vice president of global sports marketing, asserted that footballers are not overpaid in comparison to other sportsmen, the response from fellow panellist Freddie Shepherd, the chairman of Newcastle, was far from diplomatic. "I've never heard such a load of bollocks in my life," spluttered Shepherd, bringing the great and the good of the world football industry to standstill.

Supporters the world over may be wishing they could do the same.

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