A brush with death for 'Superman': Phil Davison in Madrid describes the latest adventures of a larger-than-life Spanish businessman who is determined to humble the establishment

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SOMEBODY tried to kill him yesterday. Maybe. The trouble is, Jose Maria Ruiz-Mateos, 62-year-old former tycoon, 'former brother' of the shadowy Opus Dei movement, ex-jailbird, current football team owner and independent candidate for prime minister, has a credibility problem. He is the only man in Spain who could suffer an 'assassination attempt' - flashed on national breakfast radio - and have virtually the entire nation disbelieve him.

The fact that his party, the Ruiz-Mateos Group, campaigning on the platform 'Let's get out of Europe', broke the story, and that the candidate emerged with only a bleeding nose, did not help his case. State radio played it safe. 'Some sources say Jose Maria Ruiz-Mateos was the victim of an assassination attempt as he left his Madrid home this morning. Other sources say he lost control of his vehicle and crashed after hearing a sound from a building site that resembled a gunshot.'

That, however, was before reporters were shown the candidate's Chevrolet van, with bullet holes through the back door and rear seat, which had clearly swerved off the road into a tree. Police confirmed it had been hit by shots from a hunting rifle. Mr Ruiz-Mateos, who immediately went into hiding, described how a youth on a motorcycle had fired on the van after he left his villa in the Somosaguas district of Madrid at 7.15am. The businessman's son said the incident had 'political connotations' but did not elaborate.

No one mentioned Opus Dei. They never do. Mr Ruiz-Mateos, however, had long claimed that 'my brothers in the Faith and (Prime Minister) Felipe Gonzalez' had plotted to bring down his business empire in 1983. He has said he was a member of Opus Dei for 20 years and gave the organisation between dollars 35m ( pounds 23m) and dollars 40m ( pounds 26m) from his business profits. 'Not only am I aware that something could happen to me but I'm surprised it hasn't happened yet,' he said in a 1986 interview.

'Many Spaniards have died mysteriously for much less and history is plagued with crimes committed in the name of God, of the Church.' He said he had documents in safe places around the world, to which only his family had access, 'in case something happens to me'.

Mr Ruiz-Mateos was always careful not to attack 'La Obra' ('The Work', as its members refer to Opus Dei) as such. He blamed 'individual brothers' for plotting against him. Few seriously believed Opus Dei had any part in yesterday's incident. Most Spaniards tended towards the theory that the shooting, if not staged by the man himself, could just as easily have been the work of a disgruntled fan of the Burgos football team. Burgos were condemned to relegation from the First Division on Sunday when they lost to Mr Ruiz-Mateos's Rayo Vallecano, Madrid's lesser-known team after Real and Atletico.

The shooting incident was the latest chapter in the colourful saga of the man once known as 'King Bee', after the bee emblem of his giant Rumasa holding company, abruptly expropriated by Mr Gonzalez's new Socialist government in February 1983. He has since become known as 'Superman' for his tendency to dress up as the comic-book figure to draw attention to his case - reversal of the expropriation order (although his empire has disintegrated or been sold off) and compensation of billions of dollars.

After being freed from jail in 1986 when a fraud case was dropped, he reckoned acting the payaso (clown) was the only way of keeping his case in the headlines. He was not wrong.

He once tried to punch the Economy Minister, Miguel Boyer, the man behind the expropriation. Recently, he bought a house opposite a Madrid villa being constructed by Mr Gonzalez, set up a powerful telescope on the balcony and vowed to watch the Prime Minister's every move. Hence that credibility problem yesterday.

Mr Ruiz-Mateos, from a middle-class family in the Andalucian town of Ronda, always envied the multi-millionaire families with the fino (sherry) fortunes, the Domecqs and others, with their fine clothes, prancing horses and political influence measured according to the number of barrels or square metres of bodega they owned. He began by buying a small bodega himself, expanded into others and bought his first bank, the Banco de Jerez in 1964.

By the end of 1982, when the Socialists swept to power, his Rumasa holding company controlled an estimated 781 companies, 20 banks, 49 large bodegas and 34 hotels. Years before then, Spain's Central Bank had been investigating Rumasa, which worked on the principle of buying up more and more banks to provide more and more credit to more and more companies. The Central Bank suspected that Rumasa's banks did not have the funds to cover the credits.

After the expropriation, he fled first to London, then Jamaica, was arrested in West Germany and jailed. Extradited to Spain, he was first put under house arrest and later in prison, after saying he could not come up with the unprecedented 300 million peseta (pounds 2m) bail. He was freed for lack of proof of fraud in 1986, vowed to build a 'New Rumasa' and began his campaign for compensation.

At the weekend, Mr Ruiz-Mateos submitted himself to The Truth Machine, a lie-detector test in the shape of a popular television spectacular on the private Tele-5 channel. Its degree of seriousness might be measured by the fact that Mr Ruiz-Mateos was first invited to give the audience a tune on an accordeon. Before the test, a player from the Rayo Vallecana team praised his leadership. 'Double that man's wages tomorrow,' the toothy Mr Ruiz-Mateos responded.

Mr Ruiz-Mateos described how he had once handed over 1 billion pesetas to an intermediary at the request of a senior banker, Luis Valls Taberner of Banco Popular, for 'protection' against investigation into Rumasa. He named Mr Valls and others as members of Opus Dei. In a videotaped interview Mr Valls denied the allegation. As Mr Ruiz-Mateos was strapped to the machine he told the 'American expert' carrying out the test: 'I tell so much truth, you'll need three machines.'

Had he systematically transferred money from Spain during his Rumasa days? 'No'. The machine backed him up. Had he given 1 billion pesetas to Mr Valls? 'Yes'. Inconclusive response from the machine, according to the expert, who ventured 'that could be because an intermediary was involved'. Had he used Opus Dei to advance his business? 'No'. For backing up that answer, the Truth Machine received a toothy kiss.

(Photograph omitted)