Soccer-Almunia must stop delaying illegal aid probe - Ombudsman

MADRID, Dec 16 (Reuters) - European Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia should open infringement proceedings against four La Liga clubs over possible illegal state aid to dispel any suspicions about a conflict of interest, the European Ombudsman said on Tuesday.

Athletic Bilbao are one of the teams alleged by a representative of "several European clubs" in a complaint filed in 2009 to have benefited from unfair tax advantages along with Pamplona-based Osasuna and the world's two richest clubs by income, Real Madrid and Barcelona.

The fact that Almunia, who has been competition commissioner since early 2010, is a Bilbao fan and was a minister in the Spanish government that signed off on the tax rules could imply a conflict of interest, said Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly, whose job is to address complaints about maladministration in EU bodies.

The Commission typically has 12 months after a complaint is made to decide on the opening of proceedings and in this case more than four years had passed without any decision.

According to the complaint, the four La Liga clubs had enjoyed favourable tax treatment amounting to "several billion euros", O'Reilly's office said.

A spokeswoman declined to identify the complainant or the "several European clubs", saying the information was confidential.

"Not only is this bad administration, but to the European public it can look like a conflict of interest given the Commissioner's strong links to one of the football clubs in question (Bilbao)," O'Reilly said.

"In my inquiry, I have not looked into the merits of the allegations concerning the breach of state aid rules," she added.

"I trust, however, that the Commission will decide to open an investigation tomorrow (Wednesday) in order to investigate the facts and dispel any suspicions."

In response to the Ombudsman's concerns, Almunia's office had informed her on Monday that a decision to open a formal investigation over the tax benefits will be on the commissioners' agenda at a meeting on Wednesday, O'Reilly said.

Bilbao-born Almunia is a former head of Spain's opposition Socialist party and was a candidate for prime minister in the 2000 elections won by the conservatives.

Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo said on Monday that the Commission was poised to begin infringement proceedings against a total of seven Spanish clubs over possible illegal state aid.

The complaint against Barca, Real, Osasuna and Bilbao stems from the fact that they are the only Spanish top-flight sides still owned by their members, or socios, and therefore receive more favourable tax treatment, Margallo said.

The Commission was also probing Real over the terms of the sale of their former training ground and Bilbao over aid they received for the construction of their new stadium, which opened this season, he added.

Valencia, Elche and Hercules were being investigated because of help the three cash-strapped clubs received from the regional government in the form of loans and bank guarantees.

Margallo denied the clubs had broken EU rules and said the Spanish government, which will have a month to respond to the allegations, would attempt to prevent them being forced to pay back any aid. (Additional reporting by Foo Yun Chee in Brussels, writing by Iain Rogers, editing by Justin Palmer)