The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Sports

June 13, 2014

Spain props up soccer amid crushing austerity

— VALENCIA, Spain (AP) — At the height of Spain's crushing economic crisis, the Villarreal soccer club sported an eye-catching logo across its jerseys: Aeroport Castello. The local government paid the club 20 million euros ($27 million) to promote what was to become Spain's most notorious "ghost airport" — one that hasn't seen a single flight since it opened in 2011.

The deal illustrates one of the peculiarities of Spain's meltdown: As austerity measures sap the life from health, education and welfare programs, Spain's soccer teams have been receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in government aid.

An Associated Press review of official documents shows that Spain's highly autonomous regions are helping to keep some teams alive through massive direct cash injections. Some politicians and ordinary Spaniards are questioning the generous support amid hospital downsizing, teacher layoffs and chronic delays in payments for needy people.

The 20 clubs in Spain's top soccer league, one of the world's best, received at least 332 million euros in direct public aid between 2008 — the beginning of Spain's financial meltdown — and 2012, according to the AP review. The funds were allocated through public agencies and companies run by the country's 17 regional governments. In the same period, the clubs also benefited from an additional 476 million euros in indirect aid, such as allowing clubs to run up tax and social security debts.

That makes the total 810 million euros in the years reviewed — $1.1 billion.

"Soccer puts the fear of God into politicians who worry that people will be up in arms about the possible disappearance of their club," said Sandalio Gomez, a sports management expert at the IESE Business School in Madrid. "They find ways of getting money to the clubs without which (the clubs) would not survive."

The government says soccer subsidies are simply part of a policy of supporting sports around the country. Miguel Cardenal, president of the Spanish government's Superior Sports Council, said authorities have made a serious effort to ensure proper financial management at soccer clubs.

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