BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union announced a probe Wednesday targeting Real Madrid, Barcelona and five other top Spanish soccer clubs that it says may have received possible illegal state aid.
The EU also said it might widen its investigation to include soccer teams' outstanding tax debts to the Spanish government, which total in the hundreds of millions.
EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said clubs should use sound financial management rather than live "at the expense of the taxpayer."
Almunia's office is responsible for making sure that businesses across the 28-country EU face a level playing field — including multi-billion, immensely popular soccer industry. The probe is intended to see if teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid have been unfairly relying on state aid to face other clubs in Spain's top flight La Liga league and European teams like Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League.
Beyond the top two teams, the probe is also investigating Valencia, Hercules, Elche, Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna.
The Spanish government, which knew the probe was coming, has already said there was nothing illegal about the aid that the clubs received.
"Sometimes probes are opened and closed without any consequences," Spanish Economy Minister Luis de Guindos said Wednesday.
The objections the EU was looking into centered on how Spanish clubs and local authorities handled fiscal issues such as loan guarantees, land swaps or construction funding.
The EU ombudsman's services said a complainant in the case said the state aid totals several billion euros, adding that the Commissioner had been considering the issue for years before announcing Wednesday's opening of proceedings.
More importantly, Almunia also said he might look beyond the specific case raised Wednesday.
"I have also read about the questions on the high debts of the (soccer) football clubs to the economics ministry," Almunia said.
In April, Spain's Sports Council said Spanish soccer clubs owed the government 670 million euros ($874 million) in taxes.