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From France to Spain, where Spanish soccer club teams together owe more than a billion dollars in back pay and taxes. And now, the government is offering them a repayment plan. Lauren Frayer reports on how both regular Spaniards and sports idols are feeling the pinch.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: One of the ways Spaniards console themselves in this failing economy is with soccer. If you can't afford tickets to a game, it's always on TV in your local bar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOCCER GAME IN SPANISH)

IVAN RASSULI: For an escape from work, economy problems, just, you know, enjoy it and support your team.

FRAYER: Sipping a cerveza, soccer fan Ivan Rassuli tries to put it in American terms.

RASSULI: Everybody likes football. Maybe like the NBA or baseball in United States, no, the passion, I mean, of supporters.

FRAYER: But futbol, as Spaniards call soccer, has followed the same sorry trajectory as Spain's economy. Twenty years ago, when property developers started building wantonly during the housing bubble, most Spanish soccer teams reclassified themselves as corporations. They were sold off to rich patrons who made flashy improvements, but neglected some important details, says Angel Cabeza, soccer editor for the Spanish sports daily Marca.

ANGEL CABEZA: They spent a lot of money in players, in stadiums. They didn't pay to the treasury, they didn't pay to the social security. So, the debts become bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger.

FRAYER: Clubs now owe nearly a billion dollars in back taxes and social security payments. That's money the Spanish government really needs right now. So, it's letting teams pay off their debts in installments, through the year 2020. The most winning teams here are also the richest - Real Madrid and Barcelona - and they stand the best chance of surviving the crisis. But with poor teams, it almost sounds like Cabeza is talking about Greece or Spain in the debt crisis. Poor soccer teams, just like poor countries, have to cut their deficits quickly, he says.

CABEZA: They have to do it very, very soon - sooner than later. Because in other case, they will crash.

FRAYER: Last year, stars like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo joined a strike in support of less famous players who'd gone without pay for months. Many fans supported them, like Carlo Maresca, taking a break from playing five a side soccer in his local park.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE PLAYING SOCCER)

CARLO MARESCA: It's a solidarity issue. I don't think any of the like the millionaire football players are actually not being paid. It's just the fact that they're trying to give some support to the guys who are maybe in lower divisions who, you know, don't have such high paychecks. It's like the principle that they're defending.

FRAYER: That idea of solidarity resounds with people suffering in this economy. Students recently walked out of classrooms to stand alongside their teachers on strike over pay freezes and longer work days.

(SOUNDBITE OF GROUP PROTESTING)

FRAYER: Something you hear frequently from teachers on strike, or people upset about rising taxes is that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Back at his local bar, Ivan Rassuli says the same is true for his beloved sport.

RASSULI: Football in Spain, if you are richest, more money for you next year. If you are poor? Sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FRAYER: But come next spring, teams with unpaid bills won't get away with just an apology. Soccer's regulatory body in Europe says it plans to relegate teams to lower divisions - the equivalent of the minor leagues - if they can't demonstrate how they plan to pay off their debts. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.

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