Football: The tale of a bag full of banknotes: Phil Davison reports from Madrid on why Spain's football championship 'bonus' cannot even acheive the status of a scandal

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The Independent Online
IT IS a football bribery scandal with a twist. Mighty Real Madrid had to beat lowly Tenerife on the final day of last season to win the league ahead of arch rivals Barcelona. Real coasted to a 2-0 lead, were 2-1 up at half-time, but a late own goal and another that was a bizarre gift from a 30-yard backpass gave Tenerife a shock 3-2 win and handed the title to Barcelona.

It smacked of money changing hands? Yes, but surely the famed Madrid side would never have stained their famed all-white image by taking money to lose? They didn't. Tenerife - or at least some of their players - took the money to win. Or at least as a bonus for having won. Their captain, Antonio Hernandez, known as Tono, revealed this week that he had accepted 21 million pesetas - pounds 125,000 - in banknotes in a plastic bag handed over in the car park of the Tenerife ground by a mystery man in blue jeans. Could the mystery man have been a friend of Barcelona? That is pure speculation. If so, should a man in Tono's position not have ignored him?

'I don't know what the fuss is about. This is common in Spanish football,' Tono told reporters. 'Now, I can't say whether this money came from Barcelona. At that time, we received countless anonymous offers by telephone and we never knew whether they were simply bluffs,' he said, adding that he shared it out among some team members and staff. According to other team sources, some of the offers were 'quite tasty,' believed to be a reference to the possibility of female favours, but they did not say whether the offers were ever backed up. 'The man just said: 'This is the money promised for beating Madrid.' I didn't ask him anything else,' Tono said. In any case, did the cash incentive, handed over weeks after the match, make any difference to the result?

Much more than Maastricht, which was accepted by the Spanish parliament yesterday, these are the questions being asked over beers and coffees around the country. But if a scandal requires shock, the Tenerife payola drama does not fit the bill. 'This (bonus payments from third parties) has been an open secret for years,' wrote Francisco Yague, a sports columnist in the daily, Diario 16. 'Everybody just kept quiet about it. Even though at the end of every season suitcases (full of cash) were going round right, left and centre.'

Even most of Real Madrid's players said they could not see what all the fuss was about. 'It seems normal enough,' the striker Emilio Butragueno said, adding that he was not sure whether he would accept a bonus from a third party to win.

Tenerife's Argentinian manager, Jorge Valdano, a former Real Madrid player who was said not to have been included in the bonus pay-out, revealed that Barcelona, after the end of last season, had offered to play a 'thank- you match' in Tenerife. He had turned it down.

Normal the bonus pay-off may well have been here. But talking about it in public, as did Tono and team-mate Manuel Hierro this week, looks like costing them and the club dear. The Spanish football federation has summoned them to an investigative hearing next Monday, and launched an investigation into the provenance of the cash - thought to be impossible to prove. Under Article 416 of the federation's regulations, the club could be suspended for four months and fined up to 10 times the amount of the 'bonus' received: which could be more than pounds 1.25m. If traced, the the man who paid over the money would face the same penalties.

In addition, each player proven to have taken a cut is liable to pay back up to 10 times the amount, in this case thought to be around pounds 60,000 per player. Tenerife may end up needing the gate receipts from a 'thank-you match' after all.