EU probes aid to Spain football clubs
The European Commission on Wednesday launched an investigation into seven Spanish football clubs, including Barcelona and Real Madrid, after complaints they accepted illegal state aid.
The Commission said it was concerned the alleged aid -- believed to be worth several billion euros -- had given the clubs an unfair advantage at a time when they were struggling financially.
"The European Commission has opened three distinct in-depth investigations to verify whether various public support measures in favour of certain Spanish professional football clubs are in line with EU state aid rules," said a commission statement.
"Professional football clubs should finance their running costs and investments with sound financial management rather than at the expense of the taxpayer," commented Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia -- an Athletic Bilbao fan.
The complaints concern state aid for Barcelona, Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Osasuna (Pamplona), Valencia, Hercules (Alicante) and Elche.
"The Commission has concerns that these measures provided significant advantages to the beneficiary clubs to the detriment of the clubs which have to operate without such support," the statement said.
The Commission said it had not been notified of the payments and had been alerted by "concerned citizens".
The first probe will look into possible tax privileges for Real Madrid, Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao, and Osasuna.
The four clubs in question are the only member-owned clubs in the top two divisions in Spain and as such enjoy not-for-profit status.
However, Barcelona spokesman Toni Freixa said on Monday that the Catalans do not believe there is any foundation for the investigation.
"We have never received state aid and you cannot attack our judicial form as a member-owned club because it is legal under Spanish law.
"Any investigation based on that motive doesn't have any foundation."
Athletic Bilbao president Jose Urrutia also insisted that he would fight any attempt to force the four clubs in question to convert into limited companies.
"I don't think there should be a fine, historically we have always acted in conformity with the law," he said on Tuesday.
"I have not planned a conversion into a limited company. The club belongs to the members and I don't think that model is in question. If it is, we will fight because this club continues to be a member-owned club."
Another inquiry will determine whether a land transfer between the City of Madrid and Real Madrid amounted to state aid.
However, Athletic Bilbao will not face another investigation into the role of local government in the construction of their new stadium, which was opened in September.
EU ombudsman Emily O'Reilly had questioned Almunia over his independence in overseeing the investigation due to his links with Athletic Bilbao.
But he strongly denied any suggestion that his role in the investigation would be prejudiced by a conflict of interest.
"The Commission has shown and I in particular have shown that I am not subject to a conflict of interest in applying the competition rules.
"I don't know if I should respond to these criticisms with a laugh or something more serious."
Finally, a probe will look into loans granted by the state-owned Valencia Institute of Finance for three clubs, Valencia, Hercules and Elche.
The three-part inquiry is the first step in a process that could lead to sanctions if it concludes that EU rules were broken.
Spain's Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said before Wednesday's announcement Madrid would "defend the clubs to the end".
"As far as I know there was nothing illegal," said the minister.