On Thursday, Spanish sports daily El Mundo Deportivo opened a giant can of worms when it reported that an unnamed La Liga linesman had complained to police that he was being pressured into favoring Real Madrid in next month’s Clasico versus Barcelona. Though the game officials for the Nov 21 encounter have not been confirmed yet, the linesman in question says that he was pressured first by the head referee (also unnamed in the report) in consideration to take charge of the match and second by Jose Angel Jimenez Munoz de Morales, a member of Spain’s referee committee, after declining the head referee’s initial request to favor Real.
According to the BBC, the Mundo Deportivo claims could lead to wider match-fixing scandal in Spain, as La Liga’s anti-corruption officials are said to be taking the claims seriously while Spanish police have also been informed of the allegation.
For his part, Munoz de Morales, the only man in this case whose name is out there at the moment, responded to the claims on Wednesday night -- before the report was published -- saying: “I have no idea where they come from. It is like something out of a [Franz] Kafka novel.”
Let’s presume that “out of a Kafka novel” is the Spanish soccer equivalent of “out of left field” -- a favorite American phrase meaning something that came out of absolutely nowhere. If that’s the case, then Munoz de Morales is already guilty of overstatement.
Here’s why: while the existence of match-fixing in the first and second divisions in Spain might fly under the radar here in the USA, it absolutely does not on the Iberian peninsula. In fact, as AS writer Alfredo Relaño stated matter-of-factly in his column in March: “Summer’s hot, autumn rains, winter’s cold and in spring games are bought,” adding: “there are always fixed games”. Note the use of present tense here. Relaño actually goes on to estimate that some 19 games, or 5 percent of the La Liga regular season, sees cash change hands between club executives, players and referees. They even have a nickname for it in Spain: maletines, or little suitcases.
However, let’s first of all be clear: as yet, there is no mention of any money changing hands in the Clasico linesman case. In fact, there is no case yet, at all; at the moment there is simply the allegation of pressure from the two aforementioned individuals.
But the fact that there are now allegations of match-fixing hovering over the most important game in club soccer is going to shine a real unwanted spotlight on Spain’s match-fixing problem, which is pervasive. Indeed, the coming wave of scrutiny could amount to something bigger even than Italy’s Calciopoli scandal in 2006, which ultimately saw the likes of Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina and others stripped of titles, deducted points, and in the case of Juve, banished to the third division.
According to the Guardian’s Sid Lowe, match-fixing didn’t actually become illegal in the Spanish League (LFP) until 2010, when current president Javier Tebas created a mechanism for pursuing the matter internally.
His efforts are the reason why some 41 people, including current Atletico Madrid captain Gabi, Manchester United midfielder Ander Herrera and former Mexico coach Javier Aguirre have been charged with colluding to fix the last game of the 2010/11 season between Real Zaragoza and Levante, a match that finished 2-1 to Zaragoza and kept the club in the first division. While the lawsuit is still ongoing and could result in lifetime bans or prison sentences, Aguirre, for one, already lost his most recent job as coach of Japan for his association with the case.
In another case, Angel Vizcay, the former general manager of Osasuna of Pamplona, confessed to colluding to fix several matches at the end of the 2013-14 season, also with a view to keeping his club in the first division. In his testimony, Vizcay, who left Osasuna in Oct. 2013, talks about meetings in cars and hotels with players, medical trainers and directors at other clubs. He adds that a match-fixing program was agreed in board meetings, and he names names as well as prices.
Ultimately, Osasuna’s efforts at fixing games did not work, as the club was still relegated that season, but charges are still looming over players at Real Betis, Rayo Vallecano and Espanyol -- including former captain Sergio Garcia.
According to Lowe, these maletines, or third party payment incentives usually totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, are regularly handed out to teams that have nothing left to play, so as to encourage them to give everything in otherwise meaningless games. Just a little incentive, nothing more -- nothing wrong with that, right?
Well, it’s that attitude that keeps the spiral going, and probably makes the corruption in Spain self-perpetuating, Lowe says.
Clearly, it needs to stop, and the good news is that through the efforts of individuals like Tebas and the media in bringing these cases to light, many crooked execs, players and game officials are heading to court, and punishment could follow. But now that the biggest club game on earth is allegedly involved, Spain’s match-fixing problem has by default suddenly become a much bigger story, which means many more eyes will be pouring over existing evidence and looking for new evidence. Let’s hope this problem, which many appear to be saying is one of culture, isn’t truly endemic to the league’s structure. If it is, then La Liga has serious problems ahead of it.
As Lowe says, match fixing is the ultimate crime in sports. If a game we all love is not a competition, then it really is nothing at all.