This is a morality tale, only the moral of the story is the wrong way round.

When Luis Sabalza took over at Osasuna in December 2014, there was darkness. They had just been relegated, but they hadn’t stopped falling. The electricity had been cut off, the players who hadn’t walked away had reported the club for not paying them, and the youth team was wearing old kit, whatever they could find. They were €80million in debt. There was a big, gaping hole in the accounts, the only explanation the worse explanation you could ever imagine: an ethical, emotional and institutional crisis to go with the economic one, dragging them down and tearing them apart, their very existence precarious.

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The new president mortgaged his own home and possessions to provide the guarantee to be able to take over when no one else would and to keep them afloat. He was forced, one staff member says, to borrow from friends to shop for groceries, while everything a proper club is supposed to have, Osasuna lacked: from reports on players to basic materials, and for some, even the will to go on. The fans wouldn’t abandon them — they never do — but they came more through a sense of duty and loyalty than joy, reduced numbers resisting, refusing to give in. But no one else really wanted a part of this.

There was, says one of the men trying to resurrect the club, “a cloud of sadness.” It was their task to lift the gloom, get people to believe in them again, which wasn’t easy. It almost became impossible.

In the 17th minute of the final day of the 2014-15 season, Osasuna were already 2-0 down, on their way to the Second Division B. Spain’s 80-team, four group, regionalised third division which is anything from a third to a seventh tier, a place where there is no money and less hope, they call the Segunda B the well because it’s easy enough to fall into but almost impossible to climb out of. In the 90th minute, Osasuna were still there. “If we had gone down, that would have practically meant the club going out of business,” says Fran Canal, the director general. In the 91st minute at Sabadell, a Javier Flano header saved them, the first miracle of many.

Eight years on El Sadar, redeveloped and voted the best stadium in Europe, is packed every week. There are over 20,000 members, almost double what it was back then, and a team that is a joy, everything it is supposed to be in Pamplona, the embodiment of the people. Committed, whole hearted, playing like the brake cables have been cut. The communion is complete, led by a coach, Jagoba Arrasate, who the players could not love more and who they backed even in the bad times. The club is transformed: a model of transparency and probity, good governance, a case study in crisis management, first, and sustainable growth next.

Promoted to primera for their centenary, taken there by a core of homegrown players, they are not going away again. Better still, this season Osasuna reached the Copa del Rey final — only the second in their entire history — and made it to Europe, for the second time this century. The last Conference League place was clinched on the final day of the season — they beat Sevilla, Rayo Vallecano and Athletic to it — and the celebrations were wild. It was almost too good to be true.

It was too good to be true.

Three days later, an email arrived from UEFA informing Osasuna that an inspection was coming. After all that, they would not be able to take up their place in the competition, declared ineligible. Spain’s football federation, the RFEF, had given them a licence to play in Europe but UEFA would not.

The rule, after all, is clear: “Article 4. g, to be eligible to participate in the competition, clubs must not have been directly and/or indirectly involved, since the entry into force of Article 50(3) of the UEFA statutes, e.e. 27 April 2007, in any activity aimed at arranging or influencing the outcome of a match at national or international level and confirm this to the UEFA administration in writing.”

And Osasuna* had been. Nine years earlier.

At the end of the 2013-2014 season there was a match fixing scandal which ended with the conviction of the club’s former president Miguel Angel Archanco, the gerente [the equivalent to a club secretary] Angel Maria Vizcay, the director Jesus Peralta and six other people, including two Real Betis players, Antonio Amaya and Xavi Torres. Vizcay confessed that, faced with relegation, he had bought games and in 2020, a court found that €650,000 had been paid for Betis to beat Valladolid (who were also relegation-threatened) in the penultimate week and lose to Osasuna in the final week. In total, 38 years of prison sentences were handed down, including eight years eight months for Vizcay and seven years, five months for Peralta and Archanco.

But this was not Osasuna getting found out, someone revealing the club’s darkest secrets. It was Osasuna that uncovered the scandal, Osasuna lifting up the rug to reveal what lay beneath, Osasuna blowing the whistle, Osasuna who forced it through. When the new administration came in — representing, it is important to note, a member-owned club, not a private company — they conducted an audit which found a €2.3m hole in the club’s accounts. Suspicion had already arisen about the use of the money. Almost the first thing the new administration did was investigate and pursue that.

At the same time, early 2015, the league — not the federation — made a formal report denouncing what had happened, preparing evidence and taking it to the Consejo Superior de Deportes, the equivalent of the sports ministry. They also informed UEFA and FIFA about. Vizcay’s confession was given to the president of the league, Javier Tebas.

Let’s say that again, clearly: it was Osasuna who gathered up the evidence, and handed it on to the courts, beginning a legal process that would end in a trial. Osasuna who effectively denounced what had happened at their own club.

The potential damage was huge, but there was no doubt, Canal says. “The president immediately said: ‘we have to investigate this, we have to find who is responsible. You can’t bring a crisis to an end by covering up a case of match fixing. You just can’t do that. You can’t pretend it’s not there. You have to take it to the judge, you take it to court — whatever the consequences. You can’t decide where it ends. The police come and take all the documents; you hand everything over. It’s what you have to do, the right thing.'”

Which is why that “Osasuna” above comes with an asterisk. And this is the key point. Was it Osasuna, the club, that were responsible for the match fixing, who should be declared ineligible to compete in European competition a decade on and under a different administration?

Legally, no. Not according to the courts. When the investigating judge opened formal proceedings in January 2016, it was made clear that the club, as an institution, was not being charged with corruption. The club did not hold any legal responsibility as an institution. (This was something the league challenged, twice). When the case was heard and the sentence finally handed down in 2020, the club was cited a victim of the crime, not a perpetrator.

For UEFA, that doesn’t matter. The rule is, on the face of it, clear. Osasuna were the club involved in match fixing, and that is all there is to it. (Unlike Betis, who have not been judged ineligible: the players, Antonio Amaya and Xavier Torres, are judged to have acted alone, not in representation of the club, but that same interpretation is not applied to the president at Osasuna).

Osasuna had never been handed any sporting punishment — no points deduction, no administrative relegation — but that is not relevant anyway. It is not as if having served a ban before they would be “clean” now as this is not officially a sanction, it is ineligibility, for a year. And this is, simply, the first time they have qualified for European competition since it happened. (Nor had they benefitted from the match fixing, incidentally — in 2014 they went down any way.) And so the email came, unexpected. UEFA asked if Osasuna had been involved in match fixing; Osasuna said no.

For them, that question of responsibility is everything, the question of responsibility, who the club is, at the heart of everything. That was explained to the inspectors, but not accepted by them. Now Osasuna will take the case to the court of arbitration in sport — and not armed with a thousand lawyers, the most expensive barristers money can buy. If that fails, they will then take it to non-sporting courts. There is nothing else that can be done now, without the legal case; no lobbying, no informal attempt to resolve this.

In Canal’s words: “You can’t be told you’re going to be investigated by the tax inspectors and ring up the local tax man and say ‘hey, let’ go to dinner and discuss this.’ You can’t go to a judge and say: ‘let’s talk about this.'”

“We’re worried, of course we are. Because right now, we’re out. And that’s a massive downer,” Canal continues. “But we have to be optimistic. We don’t agree that we have broken the rules. We have to think that at some point, we’ll be proven right. The verb they use is ‘involved’ and according to the Oxford dictionary that means to participate actively. Can they say that Osasuna was an active participant in match fixing? No,” says Canal.

“The judge ruled that Osasuna had not participated, that those who were sentenced had acted beyond their responsibilities at the club. I can’t deny that they were the president and the gerente. That’s not up for discussion. But did the club play an active part? The answer is no. It makes no sense to punish us, because as a club we’re not responsible.”

They are not alone in saying so. “The RFEF’s position is exactly the same as Osasuna’s. We want to make that very clear,” said the federation secretary general Andreu Camps, as he sought to defend them from accusations that they did little to defend the club. “We have put emphasis on the fact that it was the club who reported this, [the match fixing] was [specific] people, not the club.”

The RFEF’s legal advisor Tomas Gonzalez Cueto added: “The sentence is clear: Osasuna was the victim.”

Now, they are paying for it again. That is the conclusion in Pamplona and the anger is inescapable. The club described this ban as their “rights” having been “flattened.” At the San Fermin fiestas, where it was the Osasuna team that set off the chupinazo, the rocket that marks the beginnings of festivities, there were banners attacking UEFA as a “Mafia.” If a little facile — the rules are there for good reason — that fury, the frustration, the feeling of impotence is understandable. The club accused the footballing authorities of being “strong with the weak and weak with the strong.”

There is a kind of built in disproportionality: one-year of being denied European football does not hit a team that qualifies every year like it hits a team that only gets there twice in a century. The impact is huge on a smaller club who in the meantime are left in limbo, denied their dream. Planning for next season is a mess. For a club like Osasuna, playing in Europe — or not — changes everything. Then there’s the potential economic damage and, perhaps most importantly of all, the impact on their reputation, after everything they had done to change that. This should have been the culmination of an extraordinary rescue mission, a symbol of how far they have come.

Instead, how easy it would now be to reduce it all to: Osasuna. Banned. Match fixing.

How unfair too. And how counterproductive. “It’s mad to punish the people who tried to clean up the club,” president Sabalza said. The moral of the story, all wrong; the example it seems to set so skewed. The club’s statement “lament[ed] the mistaken message UEFA sends the world, punishing those that denounce corruption, instead damaging them legally.”

And that may be the most troubling part of it all.

UEFA’s rules make sense at least on a basic level and they do not allow much room for argument. The risk of reinterpreting them may open them to abuse: it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which it a club, seeking a loophole, could “justify” corruption, disown it and “cleanse” their record simply by replacing a president and claiming to effectively be a different institution now. And it is simple enough to understand why UEFA wish to prevent offenders from simply carrying on: remember Calciopoli in Italy? They do.

There is a legitimate doubt to be had over how to define a club, how to judge responsibility and prevent institutions evading it or, worse still, effectively benefitting from corruption. And it is possible to wonder if Osasuna could have managed this differently; if, knowing the criteria, the might have foreseen trouble ahead, if there was some early preventative measure they could have taken, some case to present or explanation to be made, as soon as they knew European qualification was possible. Nor are they the first club to be banned for match fixing: Besiktas and Fenerbache were both barred in 2013 and both failed on appeal.

But at the end of it all, it is hard not to feel sympathy for a team, a club, who gave everything for this and will embrace the Conference League like few others, one that deserves it; for a group of players, a coach and a board of directors who are blameless — heroes, in fact — and fans who have suffered enough. It is tempting to compare them to more powerful clubs able to play the system or just take the hit one year and be back the next. It is hard to avoid a feeling that this is unjust, that first instinctive sense that they of all clubs don’t deserve this. It is hard not to feel that somehow, this is not the way it is supposed to be.

Honesty pays, do the right thing, they say. Tackle corruption, take it on, root it out. Act. But the moral of this story is: actually, don’t. “You can’t cover it up,” Canal says, and he remains convinced of that. Yet right now, Osasuna fans could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. And other clubs, seeing this, might think about looking the other way. Some lesson, huh? Who is going to blow the whistle next time?

“How do you tell a president who sees something illegal to denounce it?” Canal says. “They are de-incentivising the fight against corruption and that should make us all reflect.”