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May 14, 2013

Plucky Levante caught in ugly investigation

Just a few short months ago I was standing a few hundred metres away from where Levante plays: the Ciutat de Valencia stadium.

Juan Francisco Garcia -- or Juanfran, to use his working name -- was showing me the three-minute sprint he used to have to make from his front door to his school when he'd overslept and then, the shaded street corner where he'd enjoyed his first kiss. The church where he'd been christened was less than the distance of a firm throw-in away and the stadium where his grandfather had taken him as a kid to see his first Levante game would have taken a man on crutches barely four minutes to reach.

Despite the fact one of Spain's globetrotter footballers had played in Turkey, the Netherlands, Greece and had performed for Spain at Japan/Korea 2002, Juanfran's "world" was in this compact and friendly little corner of Valencia.

In football terms it was the equivalent of "It's a Wonderful Life" and he was George Bailey. En route to our beachside coffee in the middle of a long day's filming, we drove through a rural area where he talked, passionately, about the value of people who till the soil and how he thinks that any man or woman who works the land is in for a hard time but will be rewarded by living in tune with the seasons and understanding the value of investing time, care and effort to something that can be both natural and financially lucrative.

A few weeks earlier he'd scored Levante's first-ever goal in a full UEFA tournament -- the game winner in a 1-0 victory over Helsingborgs -- and thought of his grandfather all those years ago. His world was good.

Then on April 13, Levante lost 4-0 at home to Deportivo La Coruna, a month after their epic, exhilarating but also exhausting Europa League run had come to an end during extra time of their away tie at Rubin Kazan.

For their part, the Galicians had won three on the bounce before a win that, Marca said, made Levante look like "a caricature" of themselves. "The worst game since I took over" said their manager, JIM, afterward. (Jose Ignacio Martinez ... geddit?)

Then it emerged that the club's central midfielder, Jose Barkero, enraged by the performance, had erupted at halftime and accused some teammates -- Sergio Ballesteros, Juanlu, goalkeeper Munua and Juanfran -- of deliberately not trying.

The radio station Cadena Ser reported him as shouting: "This is a big lie of a game, I don't want to participate in this farce." He hasn't denied that and effectively confirmed the story the following day by apologizing publicly to those four colleagues, firmly withdrawing his statements and admitting that: "I've done lots of damage to their image and to their families. The one who is in the wrong is me, by accusing them of something which didn't happen."

Levante, a club with a family atmosphere and one that president Quico Catalan has done miraculously well to take out of administration while meeting a debt repayment schedule and not only keeping Levante in the Primera Division but taking them into Europe, is now in a complete state. Injury has been done that will not heal.

But let's put that aside. Enter, stage left, one Javier Tebas Medrano. Newly promoted from vice president to president of the Spanish Football League, Tebas is a burly, forceful, 51-year-old lawyer who for years had been considered the power behind the throne long before his recent promotion.

While Tebas has recently spoken about subjects central to the well-being of Spanish football -- namely the more equitable division of television revenue, the need for consistent kickoff times and the "immoral" financial crisis caused by clubs' debts -- he has been easily the most vocal about match fixing and illegal betting.

It's close to a crusade for him and in his view, it's Spanish football's worst problem.

Last year in an interview he claimed that "It's all about the difference between what's a fact and what is provable. We've already seen and known about fixed matches but proving them in court has been a different matter.

"How can Spain apparently be 'holier' than the rest of Europe? Everywhere else there are convictions and punishments for bribery and match fixing but nothing in Spain! Obviously that can't be so.

"The key to proving things will be telephone tapping and access to bank accounts for incontrovertible proof. I've had players sat here in my office admitting that they know of games being bought. But when you ask them to bear witness and go public, they say 'no.'"

As a central part of his manifesto, it was obviously not a repulsive theme for the clubs that elected him president last month -- just in time for the Levante versus Depor match. Tebas has since pulled the carpet from under anyone whose stance was that Barkero spoke in the heat of the moment or that his words were ill-judged and can be erased now because of his apology.

He's done so by stating that he and his investigators were studying the game before it even kicked off, that there was significant information to alert them to wrongdoing and that "this time, I think we'll be able to prove it."

Levante's Quico Catalan is one of those who elected Tebas, and in the weeks since, the two have exchanged information about the investigationOf the four who were accused by Barkero of perpetrating "a farce," only Juanfran (three starts) has been listed for playing duty since the ill-fated game.

I state that only as a fact, not a judgment.

And here's where I speak personally. I liked Juanfran terrifically, while Ballesteros is an utter legend at the club, someone who means as much to Levante as Paolo Maldini to Milan, Philipp Lahm to Bayern, Bryan Robson to Manchester United or Carles Puyol to Barcelona. He had his kids christened in the small but beautiful chapel at the top of the stairs between the dressing rooms and the Directors' Lounge, for heaven's sakes. If there proves to be truth in this I'll be exceptionally disillusioned and, frankly, stunned.

Does this sort of thing happen? Yes.  Could all of these guys be guilty? I don't want to believe it.

But above everything is the truth. If proved, the magic of that little club putting things right financially and heading off into European football will be horrendously tainted, forever damaging the honest, uplifting work of many people.

I'd very much like the accusations not only to be false but provably so. Yet the only thing that should apply here is our support for the concept of innocent until proven guilty. It will be a shattering blow if these good men have been tempted. I don't know the facts of what did or did not happen -- I lack the resources to investigate as the LFP and police can. But it must be examined scrupulously and if there is proof it must be aired, examples made and justice seen to be both clear and exceptionally firm.

Equally, I'd like to believe in Tebas as a crusader for justice, honesty and probity within Spanish football. Spain is the spitting image of one of those healthy, slim, athletic 30-somethings who don't booze, watch what they eat and run around the park 30 times on a Sunday but one day crumple in a heap because of a heart problem.

In many ways Spanish football looks from the outside to be the picture of health, vitality and fecundity. Its top clubs regularly win European trophies, the conveyor belt of talent is working better than anywhere else in the world and its international team is world and European champion, etc. etc. But its clubs owe ruinous amounts of money, the television revenue distribution is a sick joke, big English and German clubs will be financially armed to come in and strip its assets over future transfer windows and now, firm accusations of match rigging have emerged.

There has always been a disreputable side to Spanish football finances -- double or "ghost" contracts to hide money from Spain's IRS equivalent, failure to pay players' wages, the suitcases of money that have always been alleged to exchange hands in order to give one team an extra incentive to beat its opponents so that the cash-paying team vicariously benefits in the fight for the title, a European place or to avoid relegation.

If Tebas proves to be the "witch-finder general," that will be good for the health of the game. If he finds and puts match fixers to the sword, then perhaps the other endemic problems are things that can then also be treated and improved. Perhaps.

But while I want Tebas to succeed if there is anything to find, I'd also point out that his firm claims of having proof of this specific alleged wrongdoing and an ability to bring people to justice have painted him into a corner.

If it's all as he says, then he will strike a blow for honesty and will be applauded. If he either turns out to be plumb wrong or is left with lingering doubts but no proof, then his words will have done further damage to some players who, I'd like to believe, are heroes to their fans and all-time legends at Levante.

Obviously, much is riding on how this "case" plays out. If it simply fades away, conveniently tucked into an old cardboard box and left to gather dust, then this will have been one inglorious episode. But if it's proved, then underneath the sound of those who crow "I told you so" you'll be able to detect the sobbing of those who've had another simple dream snatched away and dashed.

Say it really ain't so.

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