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Football League blocks Italian takeover of Leeds

By Keith Weir

LONDON (Reuters) - The Football League blocked Massimo Cellino from taking control of Leeds United on Monday after the Italian was fined for tax evasion, throwing the English second tier club into turmoil.

Cellino, president of Italian Serie A club Cagliari, agreed last month to buy a 75 percent stake in former English champions Leeds but the deal was conditional on clearance by the Football League.

The club said it was disappointed with a decision that leaves its ownership uncertain going into the final weeks of another disappointing season. Media reports said Cellino had already been helping to fund the club.

The League's board barred Cellino from acting as a club director after an Italian court fined him 600,000 euros ($826,900) last week for failing to pay import duties on a yacht.

"The (Football League) board agreed unanimously that the decision of the Italian Court does constitute a disqualifying condition under its Owners' and Directors' Test," the League said in a statement.

Dubai-based GFH Capital, who bought Leeds in December 2012, had planned to retain a 25 percent stake in the club once the deal with the Cellino family's Eleonora Sport company was done.

"The Board and Executive Management of the club, will continue discussions with the Football League and Eleonora Sport to find a solution that is suitable to all parties," the club said in a statement.

"Our shareholders continue to support the club directly or through additional investments as has always been the case," it added. Cellino has two weeks to appeal against the decision.

The English soccer authorities have been under pressure to take a tougher line on scrutinizing club owners after Birmingham City boss Carson Yeung was jailed in Hong Kong this month for money laundering.

Cellino has a previous criminal conviction in Italy for fraud and was banned for four months last year by the Italian Football Federation after Cagliari sold tickets for a match supposed to be played behind closed doors.

Leeds last won the English title in 1992 and remain one of the best supported clubs outside of the top flight. However, they are marooned in mid-table with no real chance of promotion this season.

Fans' hopes that the GFH takeover would herald a new era have been dashed and the uncertainty over the club's future ownership has weighed on the team this season.

(Writing by Keith Weir; editing by Justin Palmer)

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