The property deal that helped Real Madrid pay for players such as Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and David Beckham is being looked into by the EU, who may order the club to repay some of the money.
Real's president, Florentino Perez, sold their 15-hectare training ground in the heart of fashionable Madrid to city and regional authorities for a staggering £290m in 2001. The sale helped clear the club's £177m debt, and left enough to pay unprecedented sums for Zidane, Ronaldo, Luis Figo and Beckham. But the European Commission suspects the price was over-inflated and included a hidden public subsidy for what has been seen since the Franco era as Spain's official state-sponsored club.
"We believe Madrid's regional authorities may have overpaid," Tilman Luder, the EU's competition spokesman, said yesterday in Brussels. He warned that the club may have to pay back some money if the price exceeded the market value.
"We have sent a questionnaire to the Spanish government: to find out why they bought this land, at what price, and if they can prove it was at the market price. We suspect that the purchase price was influenced by the fact that this property had been reclassified, which increased its value," Luder said. If doubts remain, the EU may launch a formal investigation.
It seemed the perfect deal in a booming market: in exchange for selling their assets, the club received a cash windfall plus the gift of a huge plot out of town for a new training area. Flushed with newly available funds, the club invested in some of the world's finest players.
Madrid's city authorities and regional government redesignated the 15-hectare green site for commercial use. Property developers pounced on what became the most valuable piece of land in Spain on the country's most expensive street, Castellana Avenue, and the heart of the capital's financial district.
Four skyscrapers higher than anything Madrid had known previously soar over the site. The 45-story towers are so huge that air traffic lanes into the city's Barajas airport had to be moved to skirt them.
But even if the price is ruled over the odds, Perez should have little difficulty repaying the difference. Spain's biggest construction magnate, along with internationally marketable players such as Beckham, has helped Real to generate even more income.