Spanish sport feels the pinch

Atlético de Madrid handball team is latest club to fold as recession deepens

Atlético players, pictured last year after a victory.
Atlético players, pictured last year after a victory.Hannibal Hanschke (DIARIO AS)

The sporting victims of the recession in Spain have been numerous, but until Tuesday handball had remained largely unaffected. But the announcement by Atlético de Madrid that its handball team would fold immediately sent shockwaves through the sport: the capital-based side is the reigning King's Cup champion, the league runner-up and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League last season.

The club, which was reformed in 2011 after a 17-year hiatus when owner Domingo Díaz de Mera moved his Ciudad Real team to Madrid because of a lack of sponsorship in the Castilla-La Mancha city, has debts of 915,000 euros with the tax office and has failed to pay its players and suppliers.

"Club Balonmano Neptuno notifies its fans that in the face of the difficulties our economy is going through and that is affecting all entities, sporting ones among them, this company has taken the decision not to continue with its sporting activity, therefore closing all sections of the club in consequence," read an official statement from Atlético.

"The lack of sponsors and logistic support from the public administrations, coupled with the impossibility on the part of the club to continue meeting necessary payments, has made the survival of the club impossible."

David Cal, Spain's most decorated Olympian, packed his bags earlier this year

In the statement, Díaz de Mera thanked Atlético de Madrid director general Miguel Ángel Gil and president Enrique Cerezo "for opening the doors of Atlético de Madrid" and for their financial support.

Atlético de Madrid's squad, which includes two of Spain's 2013 world championship-winning team, will now have to find new clubs. The Asobal League also faces a tough challenge: finding a team to replace Atlético - one of the few sides able to compete with all-powerful league champion Barcelona, whose B team also won the second division title - next season. Academia Octavio, relegated last season, and Bidasoa Irún, which finished third in the second division in 2012-13, are the frontrunners.

The demise of Atlético de Madrid's handball team is the latest in a long line of institutional bankruptcies that has swept through Spanish sport, even affecting the global cash cow that is soccer. Venerable Liga clubs such as Salamanca, Badajoz and Palencia have ceased to exist while more recent residents of the top division, Racing and Murcia, are in danger of slipping into the abyss after successive relegations that have left them in Segunda B in a precarious financial state.

Even the gilded corridors of the Primera División have been breached by the rising tide of instability. Deportivo la Coruña, Spanish champion in 2000, faces liquidation if it cannot reach an agreement over television broadcasting rights with its creditors after it was relegated at the end of the season.

Valencia has a half-built new stadium, work on which has been paralyzed since 2009 due to the club's economic situation, and Málaga, a Champions League quarterfinalist last season, has lost its Uefa License to compete on the continent this term as a result of its financial woes and is selling off its best players to balance the books.

In all, Liga clubs owe around four billion euros, much of it to the tax man. Government subsidies for Olympic athletes have all but dried up, leading to the disappearance of some individual federations. Some professional performers, among them gymnasts and canoeists, have been forced to pay to compete outside of Spain.

David Cal, Spain's most decorated Olympian, packed his bags earlier this year and decamped to Brazil while many of the European Championship-winning women's basketball side have also emigrated.

Even winning promotion to a higher division is no guarantee of a financial Eden: if a basketball team cannot pay the entrance fee to the ACB League, it is not allowed to compete, while cycling team Euskaltel Euskadi, which contains 2008 Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez and a regular on the top-level UCI World Tour, is seeking a sponsor in order to carry on.

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