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 Joaquín 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 Club Bilbao, and Osasuna.
Another inquiry will determine whether a land transfer between the City of Madrid and Real Madrid amounted to state aid.
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 José Manuel García-Margallo said before Wednesday's announcement that Madrid would "defend the clubs to the end".
"As far as I know there was nothing illegal," said the minister. – Sapa-AFP