La Liga’s looming storm

The announcement of a European Commission investigation into alleged illegal state aid received by seven Spanish football clubs this week has cast a foreboding cloud over Spanish football. With seven clubs under investigation, there has been a bullish response from the Spanish Government, who vowed to: “defend the clubs until the end.”

The investigation into Real Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Athletic Bilbao, Elche, Hercules and Osasuna has also prompted accusations of ‘an anti-Spain agenda’,  by Real Madrid President Florentino Perez.

The reticence of the Commission to open an investigation that could well turn into a can of worms, was exposed in a hard hitting report earlier this week by EC Ombudsman, Emily O´Reilly, who stated that the failure of the Commission to take a decision on whether or not to investigate Spanish clubs amounted to  ‘maladministration’.

The matter has been under consideration by the Commission for over four years, a possible indication of the lack of enthusiasm to tackle an issue that is sure to turn into a political hot potato over the coming months.

The announcement of the investigation of Spanish clubs was almost certainly precipitated by the Ombudsman’s report, which called into question the impartiality of the EC Commissioner overseeing the case, Joaquin Almunia. Almunia is a native of Bilbao, and is known to have close ties with the city’s most famous football club.

O’Reilly stated that: “It would be unreasonable to expect the Commissioner to set aside the loyalty which many sports fans feel towards their preferred team,” but significantly noted also that: “a perception that a decision has been influenced by a personal loyalty of the Commissioner is something which the Commissioner and the Commission should seek to dispel. The continuing failure to decide on what to do in this case – more than four years now after the complaint was received – can only add to this perception.”

The announcement the following day of the investigation was an indication that the Commission had been suitably chastened, yet the Commission’s reluctance would seem to underline a lack of political will to tackle what is bound to be an extremely charged issue.

While Barcelona and Real Madrid will undoubtedly grab the headlines, Spain’s two behemoths could surely absorb an adverse ruling should the Commission find against them. However, the fallout from the investigation could potentially be devastating for the other clubs involved, particularly those based in the Valencia region.

The Government’s steadfast support for the clubs is a predictably populist stance given the cultural significance of clubs within local communities around Spain. Such a stance is only natural for a Government acutely aware of the potential ramifications and reactions from an electorate grimacing its way through a period of economic decimation, whose leadership is seen by most to be merely paying lip service to the concept of the welfare state.

Ironically enough, the type of patronage now being examined by the EC is exactly the type of political skulduggery that has left many Spaniards so despondent about the state of their democracy.

Football was seen as the sacred cow in this country. The reluctance of the EC to open the investigation would appear to be an acknowledgement of that concept. Yet the can has now been opened, and Spanish football should rightly be concerned about outsiders examining its contents.