La Liga: Is Spain Heading for Its Own Calciopoli Scandal?

Ryan Bailey@ryanjaybaileyFeatured ColumnistJune 5, 2013

There is no suggestion that those pictured are part of a corruption investigation (Getty Images)
There is no suggestion that those pictured are part of a corruption investigation (Getty Images)

Over the years, Italian football has learned to carry the shame of match-fixing scandals.

The 2006 Calciopoli scandal (in which games were thought to have been rigged by teams selecting favorable referees) resulted in significant sanctions for Juventus, Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio and Reggina.

In 2011, the Scommessopoli operation saw a number of high profile players arrested and teams penalised for their cooperation with illegal betting organizations.

Italian football has earned an unfortunate reputation for criminal foul play, but sadly, Serie A is not the only league that is apparently susceptible to corruption.

Last week, Spanish sports paper Marca published a La Liga player's anonymous claim that he was instructed by his manager to fix a game. The Daily Mail translates:

I went to play against Levante and the coach, in the pre-match team talk, told us...'If we score a goal, they will equalise, and if they score a goal against us, we will equalise. If, in the 85th minute, the scores are level, we give up and that's it.' We both needed a draw. We finished 0-0.

Furthermore, the sensational article quotes the president of a "top Spanish club," who believes a player in a match between Rayo Vallecano and Real Mallorca was approached with a match-fixing proposition:

This season in Rayo, there was contact with a player before the game against Mallorca, but the footballer immediately spoke up and his coach closed down the situation. What happened is that Rayo covered it up. I wouldn't cover it up.

This isn't the only game of the Spanish season that has been tainted with accusations of corruption. According to The Independent, The LFP—Spanish football's governing body—is set to investigate Levante's 4-0 home loss to Deportivo La Coruna in April.

Levante were 3-0 down to the relegated side at half time when a fight is said to have erupted in the dressing room. Midfielder Jose Javier Barkero is reported to have questioned the efforts of at least four of his teammates, implying they may have been throwing the game.

Evidently, there is an unpleasant culture of corruption evolving in Spain, and a cynic may suggest another Calciopoli-style scandal is on the horizon.

However, the state of affairs is not going unnoticed by the LFP. In February, then-vice president of the league Javier Tebas admitted that illegal betting and match fixing took place in Spain.

Former sports lawyer Tebas has since been elected president of the LFP, and has made it his mission to clean up the Spanish game. "The most important thing is the subject of match-fixing," he told Marca (translated via ESPNFC). "If there can be rotten games, it means the competition is not in order."

Match fixing is not the only kind of unscrupulousness that Tebas must address in Spain. In recent seasons, La Liga has become a rich source of cut-price talent for the rest of Europe as several clubs struggle to overcome severe financial mismanagement.

Valencia and Depor are just two of the clubs who have suffered with heavy debts, perhaps as a consequence of operating in a league where sponsorship and TV rights money is weighted towards the big two—Barcelona and Real Madrid, incidentally, are only impervious to La Liga's financial bubble because the unconditional support of local government and banks makes it virtually impossible for them to get into economic difficulty.

Considering the financial model of the Bundesliga—where the "50+1" rule means the majority of clubs are majority-owned by fans—it is little wonder that the German top flight is perceived to have eclipsed the Spanish one.

A problem also lies in the fact that Spain has no equivalent of the Premier League's fit-and-proper-person test, which sets out guidelines that prohibit certain people from becoming owners or directors.

If they had such a test, perhaps Malaga would not have been bought by Qatari Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani, a man who started investing in the club but lost all interest and quickly disappeared from Andalusia.

The money has dried up at a club that now faces a UEFA European competition ban for failing to pay its debts, while the sheikh's property development deal in the region continues.

Of course, economic instability is not unique to Spanish clubs, and UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations should start to curb clubs who spend beyond their means.

And it must be noted that the issue of corruption is a global one, as demonstrated by Interpol's 2013 probe that has highlighted hundreds of suspicious games from the past few years.

The new LFP president clearly has a huge clean-up operation on his hands.

Since Calciopoli, Serie A's stock among the five major European leagues has taken a tumble. If La Liga wants to avoid a similar process, it needs to quickly eradicate its culture of corruption.

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