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From duke to prisoner: how King Felipe’s brother-in-law fell from grace

Former Olympic athlete Iñaki Urdangarin was once a golden boy, but his royal connections saw him poisoned in a world of privilege and he came to believe he was untouchable

Iñaki Urdangarin leaving court last Wednesday.

On September 30, 2000, Iñaki Urdangarin was 32. He had just scored a penalty and given Spain’s national handball team its last winning goal at the Sydney Olympic Games. Spain walked away with the bronze medal in what was Urdangarin’s last professional game. Celebrating the victory in the stands was his wife, the infanta Cristina de Borbón, with their first son Juan in her arms; his mother-in-law, Queen Sofía; and Prince Felipe, already a friend, and the man who would some years later sit on the Spanish throne.

Urdangarin knew that his life was never going to be the same. Like any athlete who retires, he understood that he had to reinvent himself. What he didn’t know is that in the process he would become hopelessly lost and turn into someone completely different – someone who, today, entered prison to serve a five-year term.

Urdangarin quickly learned that in this new stage of his life he was not going to have trouble finding partners or business opportunities.

“They haven’t explained a lot of things to me. I’ve learned about them as I went along,” he told Judge José Castro years later, while being questioned in court over his business dealings. Urdangarin abandoned the sporting world he knew so well to become part of one that was much more complex, and involved power, aristocracy and privilege. It was a world he enjoyed, but one that also poisoned him. He was no longer a champion, but a duke – at that time, he still didn’t know what that meant. Although he was used to the routine of an elite athlete, Urdangarin was optimistic about his future. When he left his club, Barcelona, he said: “You have to know how to say goodbye. I want to think about my professional future and I will fight so that this new stage will be as successful as the one I am leaving behind. I need time to train myself. This is the role I want to take on.” He wanted to be a champion in real life as well, which proved to be no small feat.

He began his reinvention by studying at the prestigious ESADE business school. But there were indications something was amiss. He finished the course in two years, between 1999 and 2001, even though it normally takes five. According to an investigation by the daily ARA, it was thanks to unusual validations of previous studies that Urdangarin received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Business Administration. It was particularly curious given that he was still playing handball during that first year of study.

Urdangarin quickly learned that in this new stage of his life he was not going to have trouble finding partners or business opportunities. With several of his professors, he began a series of business ventures, ranging from odontology for elite athletes to innovation in wine. In the fall of 2002, he met Diego Torres, another teacher at ESADE. In a book he wrote about first meeting the duke, Torres had this to say: “You could tell he felt a little limited by the day-to-day [...] He hated routines. We made a good team. I observed and pulled together data. Iñaki worked at setting the mood and meeting people.” On Christmas Eve in 2002, they registered Nóos Strategic Consultancy.

Urdangarin embarked on a new way of life, a way of doing business deals based solely on who he was

Eight years later in 2010, a judge in Palma de Mallorca, José Castro, would come across this strange name “Nóos,” which means “mind” or “intellect” in Greek, in an almost empty folder, together with a suspicious agreement signed with the Balearic regional government. It appeared in a search carried out as part of a massive corruption case involving the Palma-Arena sports center. Public prosecutor Pedro Horrach had checked on the Commercial Register where the money for the project had ended up and found a company to the name of Iñaki Urdangarin. The other companies belonged to Torres. In August 2011, Horrach sent a report to the anti-corruption prosecutor: “This appears to be a textbook get-rich-quick scheme,” he wrote. At that time, the Balearic Islands, just like Valencia and Madrid – the three geographical areas where the Nóos Foundation worked – were a great place to make a quick buck.

And for five years, between 2003 and 2008, that’s exactly what he did. One of the great lingering questions is whether Urdangarin, the new man of business, thought this was normal behavior for a duke from Spain’s Royal Household.

At the time, Jaume Matas was the regional premier of the Balearic Islands, and he enjoyed huge control: he gave the order, and it would happen – the law was not a problem. He handpicked former champion sailor José Luis Ballester to be the regional head of sport. That summer, Urdangarin told Ballester that the Banesto cycling team was looking for a sponsor and that this would be a great opportunity for the Balearic regional government. In September, the two played paddle tennis with Matas and a businessman at Marivent palace. Over beers, they shook hands on the sponsorship and agreed to give the Nóos Institute €300,000.

One of the things that I have done all my life in the Royal Household is never ask what I am not told

Royal secretary Carlos García Revenga

And with this, Urdangarin embarked on a new way of life, a way of doing business deals based solely on who he was: a duke. In the trial, Ballester explained: “The aim was to hire Urdangarin and everything that came with him.” Matas admitted: “Urdangarin was a ‘getter,’ an intermediary.” And the Supreme Court concluded that “the institutional position of privilege [Urdangarin] enjoyed, given his closeness to the head of state, led the premier of the government to decide to accept the proposal, without going through the legally established processes.”

Urdangarin quickly realized that the Royal Family was a hook to attract easy money and contacts. The Infanta Cristina acted as a spokesperson for the Nóos Foundation, and royal secretary Carlos García Revenga also had a role. Urdangarin would maintain that he placed them in these positions because they were people he trusted. No one said it was strange. Not even García Revenga, who told the court: “One of the things that I have done all my life in the Royal Household is never ask what I am not told.”

But more was to come. Urdangarin founded a business called Aizoon with his wife Cristina. According to the notary, the infanta’s name was put first on the legal documents, to act as a “financial shield,” although it has not been proven that this was the intention. Urdangarin used Aizoon to avoid paying personal taxes. He charged for his services as a business advisor even though he did practically nothing and was only taken on thanks to his position. He also charged  personal and family expenses through the company.

Years later, Cristina had to explain in court why Aizoon charged salsa and merengue classes and Harry Potter books as expenses. As a board member of Aizoon, she was later cleared of the criminal charges against her, but had to pay a fine for her role in the scheme  Urdangarin, meanwhile, struggled to explain away his fictitious staff, made up of domestic workers, family members and friends. But back then, none of this seemed out of the ordinary or a threat to the Urdangarin marriage. Indeed, quite the opposite: the duke’s new life as a successful executive was perfectly put together and the mechanism – public relations with more public money – worked like clockwork.

Alarm bells sounded, and King Juan Carlos sent his legal advisor José Manuel Romero to give Urdangarin very clear orders

The Nóos Institute began to organize sporting conferences: in Valencia in 2004, 2005 and 2006 and in the Balearic Islands in 2005 and 2006 – these last two cost €2.3 million and account for part of Urdangarin’s sentence for embezzlement, fraud, influence peddling and tax crimes. Urdangarin had reinvented his career. He had found his place in the world. In 2004, the couple bought a luxury palace for €6 million in the exclusive Barcelona neighborhood of Pedralbes. It was way above their means; in fact, King Juan Carlos had to loan them €1.2 million for the purchase.

But everything began to fall apart when the foundation started to attract attention. In November 2005, a deputy from the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), Antoni Diéguez, attended the Illes Balears Forum and was shocked by its price tag – how could a two-day congress have cost €1.6 million? On February 16, 2006, Diéguez held a press conference and the media jumped at the scandal.

In the Zarzuela royal palace, alarm bells sounded, and King Juan Carlos sent his legal advisor José Manuel Romero to give Urdangarin very clear orders. “He told me not to hold any position as chairman, not to lead any project, not to have long-term commercial relations or businesses with Diego Torres, and that I should separate myself from public administration contracts,” Urdangarin later told the court.

The duke pretended to follow the orders. He moved away from Nóos but instead created a foundation called Cultura, Deporte e Integración Social (Culture, Sport and Social Integration). Things ran smoothly until summer 2008, when Spain was hit by the global financial crisis. For unknown reasons, Urdangarin and Torres had a falling out and went their separate ways. The Royal Household, which had been closely watching the duke, looked for a comfortable exile for the couple and their four children. The family moved to Washington DC, where Urdangarin had been reserved a job with Spanish telecoms giant Telefónica. All appeared to be calm. No one knew that the file on Nóos was already in the hands of Judge Castro.

On November 7, 2011, police raided the headquarters of the Nóos Foundation. A month later, the royal household removed Urdangarin from the official agenda and began to isolate him. In February 2012, Urdangarin appeared in court for the first time in Palma de Mallorca. He was a shadow of his former self. In April, Torres began to share emails about the couple’s private life. The duke’s image was irrevocably damaged.

The climate had changed. On February 8, 2014, the Infanta Cristina answered “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” a total of 550 times in court. On June 12, 2015, Felipe VI, who had applauded Urdangarin at the Sydney Games, took away his title as duke. When he headed to trial, Urdangarin was the furthest he had ever been from being a champion. He had sold the palace in Pedralbes. He was a miserable man who answered in whispers. He ended up on the bench in court with his old partner, Diego Torres. They reunited to coordinate their defense.

As a last resort, both argued that that the royal household knew everything that was happening, which was why they thought they weren’t doing anything wrong. The move permanently broke the former duke’s relationship with the royal family. His last recourse was to save his marriage, which, at least, he achieved. In everything else he failed.

After his last game in Sydney, a journalist from EL PAÍS asked him to describe himself in a few words. He replied: “A good guy who believes in what he does.”

English version by Melissa Kitson.