MADRID - As Spain gears up for the new football season, last month's headlines trumpeting the nation's first World Cup triumph have been replaced by allegations of match-fixing and tales of financial mismanagement.
Alicante-based club Hercules stand accused of paying a rival team's goalkeeper to throw a match last season and help them secure promotion to the top flight.
Hercules deny any wrongdoing but government lawyers and the Spanish football federation (RFEF) are seeking official access to taped phone conversations and other evidence from a separate investigation that have been widely published in local media.
La Liga side Real Mallorca, who are in administration, have meanwhile been excluded from European competition by governing body UEFA due to their financial problems, highlighting the parlous state of many debt-ridden Spanish clubs.
It is a worrying state of affairs for a professional league that proclaims itself the world's best and which boasts a large proportion of the game's top players and hugely rich and successful clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona.
However, the national team's victory in South Africa offers a unique chance to tackle the problems afflicting football and the authorities should use the momentum generated by the World Cup victory to put their house in order, analysts have said.
An important step would be to dispel the perception that the RFEF and the government lack the political will to hand out effective punishments for match-fixing, they added.
Abraham Paz, a Hercules club captain, was quoted as saying last week that the Spanish second division had long been prone to the practice.
"There have always been rewards for winning but having them for losing is a very serious matter," Placido Rodriguez, a professor of economics at Oviedo University and a former chairman of La Liga club Sporting Gijon, told Reuters.
"If the evidence (against Hercules) proves correct we must show no mercy to the cheats."
The authorities, including the government sports council (CSD) and the professional soccer league (LFP), have also failed to rein in clubs like Mallorca who have been living far beyond their means and are deep in the red, analysts said.
Jose Maria Gay, a professor of accounting at the University of Barcelona and an expert on football finances, estimates that the combined debts of the clubs in the top three tiers of the league are not far short of 6 billion euros ($7.7 billion).
"In that sense, domestic Spanish football has never been in a worse state," Gay told Reuters.
The 20 clubs in the top flight had total debts of 3.526 billion at the end of the 2008/09 season, with Real Madrid leading the way with 683 million, according to a study Gay published in May based on clubs' accounts.
Mallorca had income of 28.1 million euros during the same period and costs of 43.9 million, with a debt of 85 million, the study showed.
Angel Barajas, associate professor of financial management at the University of Vigo, said it was up to the authorities to establish mechanisms to force clubs to rein in spending, with effective penalties for transgressors.
Rodriguez at Oviedo University said a planned sports law, which will seek to create an independent body to control clubs' finances with powers to punish clubs by excluding them from competition, could help prevent profligacy.
Gay added that what was also needed was the introduction of a system of collective bargaining for television rights like that used in rival European leagues, allowing TV cash to be shared more equitably.
Part of the reason medium-sized clubs like Mallorca struggle is the duopoly Real and Barca enjoy over TV income, splitting about half of the 600 million-euro annual pot between them.
Their dominance means they can afford sky-high transfer fees and wage costs while their potential rivals slip ever further into debt and find it impossible to compete.
Barca amassed a record 99 points in winning a second straight title last term, three ahead of Real who had a chance of pipping their arch rivals until the final day of the season.
Valencia were a distant third on 71 points and have since cashed in on their two best players, selling striker David Villa to Barca and his Spain team mate David Silva, an attacking midfielder, to Manchester City.
"For the Spanish league to have a future it's unavoidable and completely necessary that the money generated (from TV) is shared around," Gay said.
"That's what the league must do in order to grow and above all, to use the boost from the World Cup," he added. "Spanish football is in a sweet moment but it needs financial muscle."
Barajas agreed on the need for collective bargaining but was not optimistic Real and Barca would ever fall into line.
"It would be very difficult but it would be an important step to ease some clubs' financial problems and establish a more balanced league championship," he said.
"This is absolutely essential for the survival of Spanish football over the longer term."comments