Spain’s top flight has a knack of producing dramatic finales to the season at both ends of the table. The final weekend in 2014 saw Atleti dramatically win the title at Camp Nou with a draw that condemned Barcelona to 2nd place and Gerardo Martino to the sack. Meanwhile at the other end Granada pulled off their customary great escape act with a 1-0 win at Real Valladolid in a virtual relegation play-off that sent their opponents down.
Last season a highly dramatic final day saw Deportivo La Coruna come from 2 goals down to draw at Camp Nou and ensure their safety, something you’d have said was bordering on miraculous had the exact same thing not happened when they visited Barcelona again this season. The result relegated Eibar, but only briefly, as financial problems at Elche saw Los Blanquiverdes demoted and the Basques granted a reprieve.
The end of the domestic season in Spain is rarely simple and trawl the archives of La Liga and you can find countless more examples of incredible concluding weekends. However one story that always seems to do the rounds at this time of year is talk of the infamous ‘maletines’, which means ‘briefcases’ in English although a more practical translation might fall somewhere between bonus and bribe.
Either way they remain illegal but suggestions that clubs offer ‘maletines’ to the players of other clubs at this time of year regularly surface and have been particularly prevalent this time around with plenty left to be decided at both ends of the table and just as significantly plenty of teams with nothing left to play for.
Most of this week’s allegations have centred around the players of Granada, who secured their survival last weekend with what cynics might describe as a suspiciously comfortable 4-1 win at Sevilla, a side that earlier in the season won 17 consecutive home games. Of course Sevilla’s late collapse in the game could also be attributed to tiredness having played in Europe just 3 days earlier, the fielding of a weakened team or their general lack of motivation in a game where they had little need for the win.
Now Granada’s survival has been guaranteed they also find themselves in the position of going into a game with title-chasing Barcelona, with nothing left to play for themselves. Predictably it wasn’t long before suggestions that something fishy might go on emerged.
Firstly Granada keeper Ivan Kelava was quoted as suggesting to Goal that Granada players would consider accepting bonuses from Real Madrid to get a result against the Catalans and the Croatian also reportedly indicated that the practice was normal in Spain before back-tracking on those comments with the old ‘lost in translation’ line.
Whether he said it or not, few people involved in Spanish football doubt that maletines have exchanged hands in years gone-by and some former players have been more candid about their experiences. Responding to Kelava’s reported comments on Spanish football show El Chringuito, former Spain and Osasuna midfielder Martin Dominguez stated this week “I have received third-party incentive money. I was paid by Albacete to beat Zamora.”.
In other countries in Europe, his statement might have caused moral outrage and created front-page headlines but not in Spain. Although proof is rarely presented, there has long been the assumption that teams offer the players of other clubs money or other bonuses to perform well in end-of-season games against their direct rivals for relegation, promotion or titles.
While there is something undeniably shady about the practice, which can at least potentially lead to jail sentences, there is an argument that paying other teams to perform is a necessary evil at this time of year given the tendency of players to relax and do everything but start their summer holidays once their team has nothing left to play for. Clearly not everyone would subscribe to that view but few in Spain are completely appalled by the idea although it does rather play into the hands of the clubs with bigger resources in a league already massively skewed in favour of the richer teams.
However with the cost of relegation so great, it’s certainly not something that might only apply to the ‘big two’ and the temptation to offer bonuses at the bottom end is arguably greater given relegation has sent many clubs into spiralling debts and a fight for their mere existence.
Given the severe repercussions that relegation could have on a small club like Rayo Vallecano, the fact their fate could to a large extent have been sealed by dismal showings by some of the league’s stronger teams against their relegation rivals, will have been especially hard to take. Only last weekend we saw not only Sevilla keel over against Granada but Villarreal slump to a 2-0 defeat at home to a Deportivo La Coruna side, who have been truly woeful since the turn of the year and had won just 1 of their previous 22 games in all competitions and that came courtesy of a late own goal at home to bottom club Levante.
It would have been virtually impossible to see either result happening were it any other month than May but the two clubs who ironically face Barcelona and Real Madrid this weekend, both guaranteed their survival as a result of their wins to prevent extremely nerve-wrenching final days when at least one of the clubs would have most likely gone down.
The advantage of playing teams with nothing to play for at this stage in the season is clear in all football leagues around the world but particularly here. The relegation battle this Sunday sees three teams battling it out for one spot in the Primera Division next term and all three are odds on to win their games despite facing teams higher up in the league.
Getafe will stay up if they win at Real Betis, which they can be backed at 3/4 to do. Rayo are as short as 3/10 to win their game against already relegated Levante whilst most bizarrely of all 18th place Sporting Gijon are as short as 2/5 to beat 4th place Villarreal, a side who have impressed all season, reached a European semi-final and will be in the Champions League next term.
The tendency for teams to almost give up the fight once they have nothing left to play for is clearly the driving force behind those odds and is unquestionably what drives the third-party bonus system. It doesn’t reflect well on a league that likes to think of itself as the strongest in the world but until it is properly investigated and ultimately punished, it will most likely go on.
In the latter half of the week there have even been a few stories in the Spanish media suggesting Barcelona might go as far as paying Granada players to underperform on Sunday when the Catalans visit Estadio Nuevo Los Cármenes. Those suggestions, which in anyone’s language would amount to bribery, have generally not been taken that seriously and the idea that a side of Barcelona’s quality would need to stoop as low as paying Granada to lose has been met with outrage by the likes of former Barca president Joan Gaspart, who just took it as another opportunity to swipe back at Real Madrid suggesting Los Blancos ‘harm football’.
Although any form of payment to opposing teams is shrouded in secrecy for obvious reasons, once you scrape beneath the standard bickering between the league’s two superpowers, it’s unlikely that teams would resort to outright bribing opposing teams to lose given the repercussions of such actions would surely be enormous were they to be caught out.
However offering other team’s players bonuses to try and win still seems to fall into a moral grey area in Spain and one that although also illegal is viewed as far less serious, some might even say justifiable. If ever there was a weekend for the infamous maletin, it is surely this one with five teams with everything to play for up against five teams with virtually nothing at stake.
We will almost certainly never find out if any such bonuses have been offered but the players of Granada and Deportivo, who will go a long way to determining where the title ends up, will certainly be under close scrutiny on Saturday afternoon.
In some respects they find themselves in a difficult situation in that if one of the sides was to cause what would be a massive upset and get a result, they’d probably have to deal with accusations, perhaps from their own fans, that they’d only played so well due to bonuses being offered. On the contrary, if they get well beaten, which is certainly possible against such strong opposition, they’ll be accused of not trying or caring so it’s something of a catch 22 situation.
The same goes for the players of Villarreal, Real Betis and Levante on Sunday and although by no means a new story and one without definitive proof, the mere whisper of the word ‘maletin’ continues to tarnish the climax of the Spanish football calendar.