There's a practice that is so often fully accepted, and ingrained, in the Spanish game. Yet, few would put match fixing and Shakespeare together, but this is Craig Williams. This is IBWM.
¡¡¡Lombardía, déjate meter un gol, que está arreglaooo…!!!
(“Lombardía let one in, it’s been fixed”)
So was the infamous cry from Elche delegate, Joaquin Vidal, when he desperately tried to convince Oviedo goalkeeper Alfredo Álvarez Lombardía to let his side score during their team’s league encounter on the last day of the 1971-1972 season in the Spanish second tier.
With Oviedo already promoted thanks to a draw the previous week at home to Zaragoza, Elche needed to win to join them. However, after Oviedo struck a deal with Zaragoza to draw the match the previous week (ensuring Zaragoza could still themselves win promotion on the last day of the season), Zaragoza then offered Oviedo’s players a handsome sum to make sure Elche didn’t win.
Lombardia, alongside his teammates, was happy to accept the money, “enough to buy a new house” he is reported to have said, although he had another motive not to concede a goal – he had the ‘Zamora’ trophy – for keeper in their division who has conceded the least amount of goals – in his sights.
And after his heroics in goal helped Oviedo secure a 0-0 draw, Zaragoza’s win at home to Cadiz saw them be promoted alongside Oviedo, at the expense of Elche, who failed in their attempts to ‘outbribe’ Oviedo’s players. Not that would have worked, as according to the unwritten rules of bonuses that exist in the Spanish game, one thing is offering money to win, and another is offering money to lose – the latter is frowned upon.
Yet in doing so, both Oviedo and Zaragoza entered into a practice that was fully accepted, and ingrained, in the Spanish game, and which, unfortunately, still exists in plain sight more than 45 years later.
An incurable virus that reared its ugly head again back in April due to the remarkable scoreline of Barcelona B’s 12-0 league win against fellow Spanish third tier side Eldense.
Eldense’s coach Filippo di Piero was arrested soon after on corruption charges and revelations surfaced from striker Cheikh Saad (who refused to come on as a sub in the game) that four of his teammates received large sums of money to throw the game.
The plot thickened with each passing day, with an investigation by Spanish newspaper El Confidencial concluding that Nobile Capuano, the man who headed the Italian investment group who took over the reigns at the club in January, was the ‘face’ used by Italian mafia group ‘Ndragheta to infiltrate Spanish football.
During a preliminary hearing with Spanish prosecutors, it was alleged that Capuano brought in players from Italy in January with the sole purpose of assisting the group in the manipulation of results, while he himself admitted that a certain Ercole de Cicola featured among the investors – a former footballer and club director who was arrested in his native Italy in May of 2015 for fixing at least 8 league matches in the third tier of their league structure.
The events surrounding Eldense (with a further four games currently under suspicion), although quite removed from the top tier, have served to, once again, shroud the game in the dark spectre of match-fixing, one that has never been fully stymied on a Spanish level.
Why? Because it is a fact of life so common within Spain that, like perhaps Dracula and his mask of cordiality, it hides itself behind a shroud of seemingly innocuous names and differing forms, names such as ‘maletines’, which refer to briefcases stuffed with cash and ‘primas’, or bonus payments, usually via third parties, to win (or sometimes lose) a game.
The briefcase analogy, footballing historians indicate, which was invented by a certain Santiago Bernabeu nearly 70 years ago during the 1947-1948 season. The ex-Real Madrid present paid Atletico Madrid to help Los Blancos avoid the drop that year for the first time in their history.
So revealed ex-Atletico keeper Antonio Pérez Balada back in 2013, noting that his side, with nothing to play for, were given 20 000 ‘duros’ to ensure they beat Sporting Gijon (which they did 7-2 away), so that Sporting themselves went down, while Madrid (who beat Oviedo 2-0 at home) stayed up. Of the 14 team in the league that year, Madrid finished joint 12th.
A date in history made even more interesting given Bernabeu’s naming, also in 1948, as ‘honorary and meritorious’ President of Real Madrid for his continued good deeds and great care as President of the club (a role he took up in September of 1943).
And it is these maletines and primas that, although cut from the same cloth as the Eldense ‘pure’ match-fixing tactic, that so often either slip under the radar or are not so much hidden in plain sight as accepted by almost everyone in Spain of a footballing persuasion as being commonplace.
Doubters say such tactics don’t exist, that they are just urban legends or rumours without foundation. Just ask Davor Suker. He revealed back in 2007 that he and his Sevilla teammates had accepted, through a third person, a bonus payment from Atletico Madrid to draw against Barcelona in the Camp Nou, which helped Atletico to a historic league and cup double in the 95-96 season.
Not one to bite his tongue, Suker, in an interview widely reported across the Spanish media, confirmed that such payments were “customs unique to the Spanish league”, with such ‘briefcases’ representing “good things for the players that speaks for itself at the end of the season”. He signed off by saying: “that they are always for winning I think are a good idea, it would be bad if it (payment) was for losing”.
Indeed, prior to the rescheduled league match between Celta Vigo and Real Madrid last month, press speculation went into overdrive concerning the possibility of ‘maletines’ being delivered to the front door of Vigo’s Balaídos stadium, from sources linked to Barcelona. This, given that if Celta won, then Barcelona would have the chance to pip their rivals to the league title the following weekend.
Ex-Celta legend Alexander Mostovoi threw his hat into the ring prior to the game, with the Russian believing that it’s entirely logical to think that the Celta players might be on bonus money (from a third party) as an extra motivation to win. “Why wouldn’t there be?”, he told OK Diario radio: “I was given bonuses to win. In the 8 years I was there (at Celta) we were always playing for something in the last weeks of the season, be it entry into the Champions League or Europa League. Sometimes I said it was better to finish in the bottom half of the table, where you could earn money”.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid's last game of the season win away to Malaga (coached by ex-Madrid legend Michel) didn't remain free from controversy, as Zidane's men picked up a 2-0 victory to claim their first La Liga title in five years. The controversy generated by outlets such as the pro Barca paper Mundo Deportivo, placed the microscope specifically over Malaga defender Mikel Villanueva's performance in the game. Various videos posted of the game make reference to both Madrid's first goal and incident in the 34th minute, whereby the Venezuelan, who was only making his second appearance for Michel, appears to allow the ball to pass by him to Cristiano Ronaldo, who has a shot blocked by Malaga keeper Kameni. A move by Villanueva that, the more times you watch it, does indeed seem strange.
Briefcases and bonus payments aside, match-fixing for betting (rather than sporting) purposes finds fertile ground the further down the tiers of Spanish football one travels, as evidenced by a betting syndicate insider in April last year, who revealed to national newspaper El Mundo that he was aware of around 20 of the 180 matches that were played across the country on the final game of the season having ‘fixed’ finishes in the third tier in 2015, with even the number of corners not free from manipulation.
However, an analysis of match-fixing allegations in recent years surrounding clubs from the top two tiers of Spanish football throws up a deluge of games that leaves few teams with what could be regarded as an honest bill of health, free from the unwanted shadow/spotlight of payments and extra motivations, or indeed fixed outcomes.
For starters, in 2012/2013, Javier Tebas, current President of the Spanish Football League, contacted the police over his concerns that a game between Getafe and Real Zaragoza was fixed. Getafe had nothing to play for and Zaragoza ran out 2-0 winners to ensure their safety in the top tier, in part thanks to the home side finishing the match with 8 men thanks to three red cards.
Another partly suffocated scandal occurred in 2014 following a 1-1 draw between Espanol against Osasuna in May of that year at the Power 8 stadium. A scandal levelled at Osasuna given their inability to explain irregular transactions to the value of €2.41 million, nearly €1 million of which was sent to two real-estate agents.
Athletic Bilbao, a team rightly lauded for their unique signing policy and one that, like Madrid or Barcelona, have never been relegated from the top tier, have been caught up in the web if the allegations levelled against them are given due weight and significance.
With one game left to play in the 06-07 season, they arrived at the last game of the season against Levante at home (who themselves had secured their permanence) in real danger of relegation, one point above bottom club Celta and on the same points as Real Betis.
Years later, a telephone conversation between then Levante captain Iñaki Descarga and president Julio Romero filtered its way to the desks of various media organisations. In it, the defender admits that various players had taken a bung to let Bilbao win, which they did at a canter in 2-0 win, in part thanks to an own goal by full-back José Serrano. A telephone call in which even the name Ángel María Villar was whispered as being ‘in cahoots’ – the former President of the Spanish Football Association and acting President of Uefa. A man who, interestingly, spent a decade himself as a Bilbao player.
And, if the scandal of match fixing, bonus payments and briefcases in the Spanish game was one built of bricks and mortar, it would find a home in the quiet seaside town of Llanes, on the north coast of Spain. A town equidistant with the cities of Santander and Gijon, home to Racing Santander and recently relegated Sporting de Gijon.
For years the term ‘Pacto de Llanes’ (the Llanes Pact) has been bandied about by the media, to refer to a hypothetical meeting between the two sides that took place every November during their shared status in La Liga. In practice, it meant that whichever team needed to win in the last game of the season, the other would help.
This unofficial brotherhood between the neighbouring teams, for want of a better term, was one written in black and white by the outspoken former Cantabrian region president Miguel Ángel Revilla. In a letter published by various newspapers in the region of Asturias (where Gijon call home), Revilla spoke of being ‘Cantabrian and almost Asturian’, and demanded the help and support of the travelling Sporting fans making the trip to see their team against Santander – who required a victory to stay up, in season 09-10.
Stay up they did, with Sporting fielding a side full of players with previously little playing time over the course of the season.
Lightning was to strike twice the season later, with Sporting again travelling to Santander’s El Sardinero stadium with their own league permanence at stake, against a Racing ho were mathematically safe. Despite the home side taking an early lead, the game swung in Sporting’s favour, with the away side securing a 2-1 victory to stay up, thus setting in stone the ‘pact’ between the sides.
The aforementioned letter, obviously, generated widespread consternation throughout the country, especially among those connected to clubs fighting for their own permanence, even from political spheres. People such as the then mayor of Valladolid, Francisco Javier León de la Riva, spoke out and labelled Revilla’s comments as: “touching on criminal”.
Gijon were also involved in a formal written complaint presented to the football federation by ex-Girona FC president Joaquim Boada, which concerned the presumed fixing of three games in the second tier (including two involving his former team), Mallorca vs Girona, Betis vs Sporting and Girona vs Lugo. All three of which corresponded with the last two fixtures of the 2014-2015 season.
According to Boadas, indications existed of payments, or offers of payments, for either a draw or win to occur for certain teams, and tabled a recording of a phone call from a player from one of the teams in question who admitted to ‘ir premiado’ – being in receipt of bonus money. The same Boadas who denounced both Racing Santander and Xerex for similar reasons. Boadas asserted to daily sports newspaper AS that his motive in filing both complaints was to “clean up the league because what we are seeing at the moment is a blot (on the game)”.
He pointed to the “extraordinary” motivation shown by the Mallorca players against Girona on the second to last day of the season, at a time in the season when Mallorca were not playing for anything specific. A motivation he felt was a clear tactic to “try and wrestle 2 points from Girona” and offer a helping hand to their promotion rivals’ Sporting.
He also noted how Sporting managed to achieve a 3-0 away victory at Betis after starting the game requiring at least a win by a two-goal margin to ensure that, should Girona draw, they would go up instead. He also focused on his belief that the Betis players asked the ballboys to “slow down” in the minutes prior to the final whistle.
A result which, thanks to a 91st-minute equaliser by Lugo in Girona, meant Sporting did just that. One featuring a Lugo side that, according to Boadas, seemed to play with added purpose as the clock wore down, much to the disbelief of the home support.
And then we turn to last year when Sporting required a victory over Villarreal at home to maintain their La Liga status. The then Villarreal manager was Marcelino, Asturian native and ex-Sporting manager, who himself spoke openly about his desire for Gijon to stay up. A 2-0 home victory saw Sporting defeat a side in Villarreal with nothing to play for, a result that caused controversy given Marcelo’s wife’s subsequent Facebook post concerning the game.
In it, she attracted the wrath of the Rayo Vallecano and Getafe faithful, after writing: “Job done, we kept you in the Primera”, obviously directed at the Sporting support.
A 4-0 away win for Deportivo La Coruña against Levante in May of 2013 raised suspicions across the country for the manner of victory for the visiting side, with Levante midfielder José Barkero, in the days after the game, accusing fellow teammates Ballesteros, Juanfran, Juanlu and Munúa of playing the match at a head-scratchingly inferior level to their normal ability, strengthening the sound of the alarm bells already ringing.
Not long after, unexpectedly, then Deportivo chairman Augusto Joaquín César Lendoiro informed against match-fixing in the country, saying that, rather than it being an isolated fact of the game, it was more a common practice. He also detailed that, to his knowledge, almost all of the matches played in La Liga on the last day of the season were fixed, “in one way or another”.
He went on to say that such practices should be stopped due to the generation of results that really screamed out ‘dodgy’, while meaning that, teams not involved in the scandal went down without any justification at all.
“There’s plenty of examples of it, but one thing is the legal reality and the other the reality that we have to live with,” he said. “We all know what has happened over the past few years. If we take a look back at what has happened we could put together a very interesting little book. What is really hurtful is that those of us who haven’t had anything to do with it have ourselves been implicated.”
And if that wasn’t enough, even the woman’s game hasn’t got away scot-free. In December 2013, the director of Competition the Spanish league federation, Ricardo Resta, received the unwelcome news that a match between Real Sociedad and Granada’s women’s sides had a fixed outcome for betting reasons. This was during a special European Parliamentary session organized by Federbet, a group who specialize in the detection of fraudulent sporting activities.
In evidence, they pointed to the fact that, as the second half of the game got underway (with the scores still 0-0), a bet of €50,000 was placed on the eventual 3-0 home win outcome. Cue a dodgy penalty decision and a ‘clearly’ offside goal in the last half hour of the game to see the required result take shape.
That a match was fixed between two teams placed 8th and 13th in their respective (non professional league), played within the confines of Real Sociedad’s training ground, illustrates the depth of the infiltration by organizations concerned in the fixing of Spanish matches.
And let’s not forget the big two, Real Madrid and Barcelona. In the race for the league title in the 1991-92 season, Barcelona (who won their first Champions League trophy the same year) pipped their rivals on the last day of the season, after Madrid lost 3-2 away to Tenerife. Then Madrid midfielder and current Indonesia coach Luis Milla (who had spent six seasons at Barcelona), attested that, before the Tenerife game, a fellow professional contacted him by phone and asked that he score an own goal. Even 20 years later, he still stuck to his word, although chose not to reveal neither the person who called and the amount of money involved.
In October of that year, the Tenerife captain, Toño, admitted to radio station Cadena SER that his side had received a sum of between 15 and 25 million pesetas (£75-£125 000) from ‘sources unknown (ie Barcelona) to win against Madrid, with the deal done prior to the match over the telephone. Toño confirmed that, on the team’s return to pre-season training for the following season, a man presented himself to him at their stadium with a bag of money for the ‘job done’, which he subsequently split between 25 others (players and staff at the club), with only the then manager, Jorge Valdano, and his assistant, Ángel Cappa, not involved.
It is rumoured that Barcelona also paid Valencia in 1994 to do them a turn against the famous ‘Super Depor’ side to stop them from wrestling the title away from the Catalan side at the Riazor on the penultimate game of the season of 1993/1994, with the 1-1 draw ensuring that Barca, who beat Sevilla at home on the last game of the season, won the title by a whisker. Ex-Depor keeper Paco Liaño, made the allegations last year on a local radio station, noting his surprise at the time with Valencia’s intensity and the marked celebrations of their keeper González on saving Bebeto’s penalty during the game.
Madrid gave money to players of both Betis and Sevilla in the 1979-1980 before games with Real Sociedad in an effort to derail Real Sociedad’s fantastic season with, bizarrely, in the case of the Betis players, the handover of cash being undertaken by the father and wife of an unnamed Madrid player in the not so secret confines of Barajas airport.
Their ex-treasurer, Juan Onieva, confirmed that the club also paid a sum of 50 million pesetas to Hercules for defeating Barcelona in the 1996-7 season, a team, managed by Bobby Robson, which counted Brazilian Ronaldo, Figo and Guardiola in their side. The match, which took place on the penultimate week of the season, was curious for the fact that Hercules – who ran out 2-1 winners – were already relegated, with the result practically handing Madrid the league.
Madrid even paid Lugo to win against Talavera two season later, so that their B team could ensure their place in the playoffs for promotion at the end of the season, with a Lugo player affirming that it was ex-Real Madrid president himself, Lorenzo Sanz, who turned up in Lugo to effect the payment to his side.
On appearance, it seems that in recent years the Spanish game, unlike other leagues in Europe, is in good health and retains a competitive spirit akin to a forgotten era - one which was ingrained within football across the continent.
In looking for an apt metaphor, perhaps that of the rotten orange seems fitting, the same orange referred to by Claudio in rejection of Hero at the altar in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
An orange that for many of a certain generation, became a symbol of Spanish football in the form of the cartoon figure of ‘Naranjito’, the mascot for the 1982 World Cup.
One that, almost paradoxically, was criticised in certain quarters for not being the most representative of the Spanish nation, yet born out of bot simplicity and a desire to steer clear of traditional stereotypes of a bull or tambourine wielding flamenco dancer.
Aforementioned Oviedo keeper Lombardía’s words – after confirming his team’s receipt of 1 million pesetas (around £4,800 in 1970’s money) from Zaragoza after drawing with Elche – also seem to strike a very current chord.