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By ESPN Staff

Marseille bribery trial starts with citation problems

MARSEILLE, France, March 13 (Reuters) - Olympique Marseille's main shareholder Robert Louis-Dreyfus denied charges of embezzling players' transfer fees during the 1990s when he appeared in court on Monday.

Louis-Dreyfus was among 14 people, including former coach Rolland Courbis, appearing before the Marseille court on embezzlement and bribery charges.

'I used to discuss the transfer price and then I seldom intervened. I was not part of the negotiations,' Louis-Dreyfus told the court on the opening day of the trial.

A according to testimony from Marseille's former delegate chairman Jean-Michel Roussier, however, Louis-Dreyfus was 'systematically' part of the transfer talks.

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

The transfers of former France 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.

Louis-Dreyfus said Marseille was one of the few French clubs without debt.

'We have always paid on the nail,' he said.

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, transferred 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 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.