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FOOTBALL

Spain’s match-fixing scandal is the tip of the iceberg

The shocking testimony of previously unheard of Mauritian forward Cheikh Saad rocked Spanish football this week with fears that match-fixing is running wild in the country's lower divisions.

Spain's match-fixing scandal is the tip of the iceberg

“Sport's big problem is not doping, but the fixing of matches linked to illegal betting patterns,” says Jose Luis Perez Trivino, a legal expert on the subject and president of the Spanish association for quality ethics in sport.   

Alarms were raised when on April 1 Barcelona's youth team, Barca B, thrashed Eldense 12-0 in the Second Division B – Spain's regional third tier.    

Saad watched on from the bench as the goals rained in to mathematically relegate Eldense.

“It was hard to take because there were players suffering a lot and afterwards you realise that it is our own teammates who have been laughing at us,” said the 26-year-old.

Saad reported his suspicions to the police along with Eldense president David Aguilar.

Five people have since been arrested, including Italian coach Filippo Di Pierro, another member of the coaching staff, two players and the head of an Italian investment company that recently took control of the club.

According to Spanish press reports, the mysterious Italian investment in a struggling side in Spanish football's third tier could have mafia connections with the intention of fixing matches.

'Tip of the iceberg'

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” the Spanish league's director of integrity Alfredo Lorenzo told AFP.

“There are other cases of the same magnitude that we have already reported and will come to light.” 

All of those cases stem from the third and fourth tiers, semi-professional leagues where the controls and spotlight on the participants are a world away from the upper echelons of La Liga where millionaires like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi ply their trade.

Average salaries of clubs in Spain's lower divisions can often be less than €1,000 ($1,058) a month.

“It is not that these players are less honest, but they earn very little and it is more fertile territory (for fixers),” says Javier Edo, head of the integrity division at Spanish players' union AFE.

The lucrative business attracts “mafias based in south-east Asia, the Balkans, Russia and Italy who dip their toes into different leagues and sports,” adds Perez Trivino.

“They contact the player, agree on the result and once it comes about, they give him the amount agreed upon,” adds Jesús Alberto Fuentes, chief inspector of the gaming industry for Spanish police.

This week La Liga signed an agreement with online gaming company JDigital to help flag up fraudulent moves in the market.    

However, according to Fuentes, investigations are often long and expensive because of the informal nature of the Asian markets and a difficulty in tracing the movement of money.

For that reason, the authorities now have their guard up at even the slightest sign of unusual performances on the field.   

“Even the smallest gesture like conceding a corner can be serious because they already have you in the palm of their hands,” adds Edo.

15 corners in 45 minutes

One club in the south-eastern Valencia region, Acero CF, learned the hard way how corrosive an effect fixing can have.    

Last season Acero, founded in 1919, were relegated from the fourth tier.    

“I saw some strange things going on, but we thought we were on a bad run of form until the goalkeeper told me he had received a phone call offering him €1,000 to let in a goal,” Acero president José Manuel Gil told AFP.    

It wasn't just results, but other elements of the game that were fixed for lucrative spot-betting markets.

“There was one game where we conceded 15 corners in the first half,” adds Gil.

After Gil reported his findings, the police arrested two players, including the club captain who had agreed results with opposing teams and fixers.    

“It was one of the darkest moments in nearly 100 years of our history.”

By Daniel Bosque / AFP

FOOTBALL

Putellas becomes second Spanish footballer in history to win Ballon d’Or

Alexia Putellas of Barcelona and Spain won the women's Ballon d'Or prize on Monday, becoming only the second Spanish-born footballer in history to be considered the best in the world, and claiming a win for Spain after a 61-year wait.

FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award.
FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award. Photo: FRANCK FIFE / AFP

Putellas is the third winner of the prize, following in the footsteps of Ada Hegerberg, who won the inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or in 2018, and United States World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, winner in 2019.

Putellas captained Barcelona to victory in this year’s Champions League, scoring a penalty in the final as her side hammered Chelsea 4-0 in Gothenburg.

She also won a Spanish league and cup double with Barca, the club she joined as a teenager in 2012, and helped her country qualify for the upcoming Women’s Euro in England.

Her Barcelona and Spain teammate Jennifer Hermoso finished second in the voting, with Sam Kerr of Chelsea and Australia coming in third.

It completes an awards double for Putellas, who in August was named player of the year by European football’s governing body UEFA.

But it’s also a huge win for Spain as it’s the first time in 61 years that a Spanish footballer – male or female – is crowned the world’s best footballer of the year, and only the second time in history a Spaniard wins the Ballon d’Or. 

Former Spanish midfielder Luis Suárez (not the ex Liverpool and Barça player now at Atlético) was the only Spanish-born footballer to win the award in 1960 while at Inter Milan. Argentinian-born Alfredo Di Stefano, the Real Madrid star who took up Spanish citizenship, also won it in 1959.

Who is Alexia Putellas?

Alexia Putellas grew up dreaming of playing for Barcelona and after clinching the treble of league, cup and Champions League last season, her status as a women’s footballing icon was underlined as she claimed the Ballon d’Or on Monday.

Unlike the men’s side, Barca’s women swept the board last term with the 27-year-old, who wears “Alexia” on the back of her shirt, at the forefront, months before Lionel Messi’s emotional departure.

Attacker Putellas, who turns 28 in February, spent her childhood less than an hour’s car journey from the Camp Nou and she made her first trip to the ground from her hometown of Mollet del Valles, for the Barcelona derby on January 6, 2000.

Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas (R) vies with VfL Wolfsburg's German defender Kathrin Hendrich
Putellas plays as a striker for Barça and Spain. GABRIEL BOUYS / POOL / AFP

Exactly 21 years later she became the first woman in the modern era to score in the stadium, against Espanyol. Her name was engraved in the club’s history from that day forward, but her story started much earlier.

She started playing the sport in school, against boys.

“My mum had enough of me coming home with bruises on my legs, so she signed me up at a club so that I stopped playing during break-time,” Putellas said last year.

So, with her parent’s insistence, she joined Sabadell before being signed by Barca’s academy.

“That’s where things got serious… But you couldn’t envisage, with all one’s power, to make a living from football,” she said.

After less than a year with “her” outfit, she moved across town to Espanyol and made her first-team debut in 2010 before losing to Barca in the final of the Copa de la Reina.

She then headed south for a season at Valencia-based club Levante before returning “home” in July 2012, signing for Barcelona just two months after her father’s death.

In her first term there she helped Barca win the league and cup double, winning the award for player of the match in the final of the latter competition.

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