As Spain continues to revel in reigning supreme after lifting soccer's World Cup in South Africa last month, a match-fixing allegation is threatening to overshadow the start of the country's top domestic league.
The scandal surfaced when the main shareholder of second division team Hercules was allegedly caught on tape boasting that he paid €100,000 to the goalkeeper of the opposition side Cordoba to throw a match in May. This game was critical to the Alicante based outfit's eventual promotion to La Liga, which boasts some of the world's greatest teams and players such as Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo. Hercules won 4-0 and moved up to the top flight, finishing runners-up behind Real Sociedad, following more than a decade in the second division.
The Hercules case broke after local press published transcripts of phone conversations between the team's top shareholder Enrique Ortiz (who is also being investigated over an unrelated corruption scandal involving a trash-collection contract) and a relative. "I gave him 100,000. In the first goal, he threw himself to the other side. It was amazing," according to the transcript published in El País.
In other conversations Ortiz alleges that three other teams Salamanca, Girona and Recreativo turned down similar bribes and he talks openly of widespread payments in the second division, without which it would impossible to earn a slot in the top tier. "Spanish football is in danger," says Declan Hill, an investigative Canadian journalist and author of the bestseller book, The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime. "Authorities don't appreciate what they are facing. They have no concept of what they are dealing with and they think it's an image manageable problem." Hill adds, "This is a picture perfect case of the problems in fighting corruption. Spain doesn't have a unit to fight this and they need someone like Judge Baltasar Garzón for that."
Indeed, the government's sports authority has filed and failed thus far to obtain several requests to get copies of the conversations, which the country's soccer federation would then use to determine whether there had been foul play behind the scenes and if it should mean that Hercules could be barred from playing in the country's most prestigious league, which kicks off on August 29. Judge José Luis de la Fuente, who is overseeing the case, has so far refused to surrender the wire taps because they were ordered up as part of the unrelated investigation and because the Spanish law making match-fixing a crime doesn't go into effect until the end of the year.
For its part, Hercules has distanced itself from Ortiz. In a statement, the club said the suggestion of match-fixing was patently untrue. "Hercules categorically denies this action and publicly reiterates that (their) sporting conduct in this match (against Cordoba) and all those played during the season rigorously respected competition rules." Furthermore, they cited match reports at the time, none of which noted any hint of irregularity but rather praised the performance of Cordoba's goalkeeper, Raul Navas. Ortiz has not publicly commented on the case because the court investigating him imposed a gag order. Navas has been quoted in local media denying taking a bribe, but like most involved, has declined to clarify further.
The allegations have also triggered a broader debate over how wide-spread match fixing may be in Spanish soccer. "It's clear that this type of scandal affects the credibility of the Spanish league," says Luis Lucio, a spokesman for the government's top sporting regulator, the Superior Sports Council (SCD). "The sooner we end this, the better."
Easier said than done. The Hercules case underscores ongoing concerns over corruption in Europe's soccer leagues and the difficulty in combating it. It's not the first time Spanish soccer has been rocked by match rigging allegations either. Last year two lower league matches between Las Palmas and Rayo Vallecano and Alavés and Alicante came under suspicion, but authorities dropped the case over lack of evidence. And as recently as last month, German prosecutors announced that over 250 people are suspects in an ongoing investigation related to €1.5 million in payments to referees and players alike to rig 270 matches across nine countries. And infamously in 2006, three of Italy's top teams, Juventus, Fiorentina and Lazio, were relegated to a lower league and had points deducted following a match-rigging investigation (despite that murky backdrop, the national side went on to win the 2006 World Cup).
"This is certainly something important because it implies there is something fundamentally wrong, that there is an environment for this to happen," said Tito Boeri, an economics professor at Bocconi University and scientific director at Fondazione Rodolfo Debenedetti, who has written about the economic impact of Italy's own match-fixing scandals. "These cases are devastating. Italy is still paying the cost of its own scandal."
Experts fear for Spain too as its recent rise as one of the world's sporting powerhouses in addition to the soccer team lifting the World Cup, and the basketball side hoping to defend its world title this month, the country boasts Wimbledon winner Rafael Nadal, Tour de France champ Alberto Contador and Formula 1's two-time winner Fernando Alonso could make it susceptible to further corruption as illegal gambling houses expand their lucrative business. And with Spain bidding to host the 2018 World Cup and 2020 Olympics, could it be too much too soon? "This is a phenomenon that is just embedding itself. It's a window of opportunity now. And Spain is not ready for this," says Hill.
Whether Hercules will be deemed ready to take on the might of Barcelona or Real Madrid remains to be seen.