“To tell the truth, I don’t remember…” “5,000 euros… 7,000 euros?” “Yes, around that, if not 7,000 then 6,000… I got paid and I didn’t even play, so I assume the others collected too, don’t you think?…”

The men talking are Real Sociedad president Inaki Badiola and the former Tenerife player Jesus Mora Nieto, “Jesuli.” “There will have been players who didn’t want to play but played and others who wanted to play precisely so that they could…”, Jesuli continues, his voice trailing off. “It felt bad collecting the money, because it was la Real [who suffered as a result]. You’re going to say ‘why take it then?’ but I wasn’t just going to burn it, was I?”
“It’s like everything in life: money ruins everything,” he adds, before uttering the killer phrase: “Se vendieron.”

Se vendieron. It means “they were bought,” or “they sold themselves”. The “they” in question were Tenerife, who had allegedly thrown a match to allow Malaga to get promoted to Spain’s first division at the expense of Real Sociedad, ready for the 2008-09 season.

It has long been assumed (and, despite its illegality, tolerated if never openly admitted) that during the final weeks of the season “maletines” make their mark on Spanish football. These are third party payments designed to make teams with nothing to play for try a little harder. But here was something even worse: a team being paid to lose, not to win. A victory that had been bought. A game that had been fixed.

The scandal broke thanks to a taped conversation between an out-of-work footballer and a president who had previously complained of corruption in the game, particularly by Malaga, run by the Sanz family – ex-Real Madrid player Fernando, now the Malaga president, and his father, the former Real Madrid president Lorenzo.

Published by the newspaper El Mundo, the conversation, held in San Sebastian between Badiola and Jesuli, centres on the final day of the 2007-08 season when Tenerife travelled to Malaga with nothing to play for – except, alleges Jesuli, around 6,000 euros each for losing. Malaga were fighting for promotion to the First Division along with Real Sociedad, who were at home against Cordoba.

Jesuli stayed behind having suffered a broken nose. Without him, Tenerife lost 2-1. Malaga’s second goal came from a penalty after captain Juanma had handballed; Tenerife’s had been irrelevant, arriving in the 93rd minute with the game already lost.

Hidden camera evidence
The week before, Lorenzo Sanz had been accused of trying to buy his side’s 1-0 victory over Sevilla Atletico. Hidden camera evidence provided by an agent suggested as much, as it showed him offering 250,000 euros (£210,000) for a victory. The threat of sanction still hung over Malaga even as they celebrated.

Ultimately, though, Spain’s Comite de Disciplina Deportiva (CDD, the Committee for Sporting Discipline) rejected the case: the evidence was not reliable enough and, besides,
Lorenzo Sanz had no formal connection to Malaga – he was merely the president’s father.
Malaga were up. Real Sociedad were not. But was promotion won fairly?

Six months later, with Jesuli having left Tenerife and now training with Sevilla Atletico, fresh evidence came to light; a second recording appeared – the conversation between Badiola and Jesuli, transcribed in El Mundo and posted on their website.

There are a number of unanswered questions. Where did the tape come from? Who wanted to leak it? Why was the conversation recorded, and who by? And why did the conversation even take place? It is, after all, a weird, almost interrogation-style conversation between two men who had no real reason to be talking. Is Jesuli telling the truth? Why wouldn’t he? Why speak up now? And can he really speak for everyone having not been at the game? But, on the face of it, the evidence looks damning.

In the recording, Badiola asks Jesuli, who used to play for Real Sociedad and had visited the Basque club, about the match. “The Second Division is horrible, a real hell,” Badiola begins.

“I have been president for 10 months and one of the things that has most disappointed me is that, frankly, football is rotten.

“Round here,” he adds, “there are lots of rumours that those of you who were playing for Tenerife got a bonus… for losing.”

At first Jesuli is reticent but eventually sketchy details begin to emerge: about how he didn’t know the exact process undertaken by other players, but that he received payment in Seville; about how “almost everyone knew something strange was going on”; and about how he was “totally out of it [organisationally and logistically]” but “received money”.

“You can’t do anything if the whole group [is involved]”, he adds by way of excuse for not making a stand, adding:

“Shit, this is serious.”

The fallout
It wasn’t long before the fallout started. Not content with the release of the conversation, Badiola went a step further and accused Tenerife captain Juanma – the man who had given away the penalty – of having arranged the whole thing and claimed that “every single Tenerife player got paid”. He then asked the Spanish football federation president Angel Maria Villar to “get his mop out” and clean up football. “All we ask for is justice,” he insisted.

Badiola also launched another attack on the Sanz family, calling them “criminals and cheats”, insisting: “I have nothing against Malaga as a club or a city but these people should not be running a football club like they are.”

The denials quickly flooded in. Lorenzo Sanz insisted it was all “bullshit”, calling Badiola “football’s cancer”. Tenerife’s squad gave a joint press conference, led by captain Cristo Marreo, in which he described the allegations as “false” and complained that they had been “accused of something we have nothing to do with”.

Marreo continued: “We will not allow our professionalism to be questioned at any stage. We have behaved according to the values that define this club: professionalism, honesty and fair play.”

As for Juanma, he insisted that he would investigate the possibility of taking “legal action against Badiola”. He was not alone. Fernando Sanz announced that Malaga would begin legal actions against Jesuli if he did not retract his comments in the video.

Lawyer statement
Which was what Jesuli did, although not exactly. In a carefully-worded, prepared statement released by his lawyer, Jesuli insisted that “it is absurd to think that a player who could not even play in a match would earn money because of the result”.

He added that any attempt to fix a game “deserves reproach” and insisted that, never mind its content, the conversation between him and Badiola was “private” and recorded without his consent.

The statement was not a full denial and the following day another part of the conversation was released which seemed to suggest that Jesuli knew he was being recorded, while Badiola – again, like Jesuli, Sanz, and Juanma, using language that appeared to be deliberately ambiguous – publicly insisted: “It would never cross my mind to record a conversation without someone’s consent.”

In this latest release Badiola and Jesuli were heard discussing what to say if the conversation between them got into the wrong hands, Jesuli reaching the conclusion that the best thing to do would be to “say nothing”, while Badiola suggests he should complain that he never knew he was being recorded.

A criminal case
In the meantime, the CDD passed the details on to the public prosecutor to investigate as the accusations and counter-accusations fly. This is a criminal case now. If Jesuli’s accusations are true, fraud could have been committed against Tenerife (who pay their players to win), against Real Sociedad, against the league, against the football federation, against the inland revenue (after all, if there were payments they were made cash in hand and undeclared), and against anyone who played the football pools that weekend.

It could mean a points deduction or a huge fine for Malaga, a club already on the brink financially. It could mean automatic relegation, it could mean promotion, and it could mean a jail sentences. It could yet encourage others to come out, new evidence to emerge, more accusations to be made, a real can of worms to be opened. It could even, at long last, prompt real investigation into the maletines. Or, sadly, it could kept swept under the carpet again.

“Shit, this is serious,” said Jesuli on the tape. There may still be doubts over everything else he said, but on that particular score, he was absolutely right.