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Mar 10, 2006

Marseille in the dock over transfers in late 90s

MARSEILLE, France, March 10 (Reuters) - Olympique Marseille's main shareholder Robert Louis-Dreyfus and charismatic former coach Rolland Courbis are among 14 people who go on trial next week on embezzlement and bribery charges.

The trial, starting on Monday and expected to last until March 31, will try to establish if Louis-Dreyfus, Courbis and several other former club officials were guilty of illegal payments in the transfers of 15 players between 1997 and 1999.

The transfers of former French international defender Laurent Blanc, who joined Marseille from Barcelona in 1997, and striker Christophe Dugarry, who moved in the opposite direction the same year, will come under the microscope.

After a six-year investigation, the court will also try to shed light on the signing of midfielder Claude Makelele by Real Madrid and the arrival at Marseille of Italian striker Fabrizio Ravanelli from Middlesbrough in September 1997.

Other transfers involving defender Sebastien Perez, transfered from Blackburn Rovers to Bastia in January 1999, and striker Ibahima Bakayoko, who joined Marseille from Everton in June 1999, will be reviewed during the next fortnight.

According to the officials involved in the investigation launched in December 1999, the alleged embezzlement totalled more than 22 million euros ($26.26 million).

No players are expected to attend the trial or be summoned as witnesses.

KEY CHARACTER

Louis-Dreyfus, Marseille's president at the time of the transfers, has put around 170 million euros ($203 million) of his personal wealth into the club and will be the key character at the trial.

Charged with misappropriation of public property, Louis-Dreyfus's signature is alleged to appear on 14 of the 15 transfer contracts over the two years under investigation.

The French tycoon has always denied he was informed of any illegal payments and said his driving force was a passion for football.

Jean-Michel Roussier, Marseille's deputy chairman from 1995 to 1999, is charged with misappropriation of funds.

Roussier played a key role in at least half a dozen transfers, including those of Blanc and Dugarry, World Cup winners with France in 1998.

Roussier's successor Yves Marchand, who was at the club from 1999 to 2000, will be questioned over six transfers which included those of Ivory Coast striker Bakayoko and Girondins Bordeaux midfielder Kaba Dawara.

Diawara was signed by Marseille in July 1999 after a six-month spell at England's Arsenal.

The transfers of Spain's Ivan de la Pena from Lazio, Brazilian Edson Da Silva from Recife and Ghana's Arthur Moses from Fortuna Duesseldorf will also be scrutinised.

COURBIS DENIAL

Courbis faces charges of complicity in the misapproriation of public property and the use of false documents. Courbis's evidence is expected to provide some of the most dramatic testimony over the next two weeks.

'I'm not going to try to avoid the justice of my country. I have nothing to hide,' the outspoken Courbis told French radio this week. 'I only hope that this trial is going to be fair.'

Courbis, who complained the investigation was conducted in an unfair manner, coached Ligue 1 side Ajaccio before he was sacked this season.

'If there were illegal financial moves in some transfers, we will talk about it. What I know is that I did nothing wrong', said Courbis, a former Bordeaux coach.

Marseille's losses between July 1997 and June 2000 were estimated at about 250 million francs while over the same period 370 million francs were injected into the club to avoid bankruptcy.

Louis-Dreyfus injected part of these funds through an investment company called Eric Soccer established in November 1998. Over the last 10 years, the French Professional Football League's disciplinary and control committee has twice threatened to relegate Marseille on financial grounds.

Both times, Louis-Dreyfus saved the club with his own money.

Marseille were in the news last month after allegations surrounding a match-fixing scandal in 1993 resurfaced.

Marseille won the French league title in 1993 after club officials rigged a league match. They were stripped of the title when the match-fixing was discovered, and former Marseille chairman Bernard Tapie was found guilty of bribery in 1995.