BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Barcelona, the team that once awed the soccer world with its beautiful style on the field and its social commitment to being “more than a club,” is in danger of tarnishing its reputation with a scandal of its own making.
Although the club denies doing anything wrong, a Spanish state prosecutor is probing Barcelona’s payment of millions of dollars over several years to a company that belonged to the vice president of the refereeing committee in Spain.
Spanish soccer has been reeling since the story broken by radio station SER Catalunya earlier this week said Barcelona had paid 1.4 million euros ($1.5 million) from 2016-18 to a company belonging to former referee José María Enríquez Negreira, who was a part of the Spanish soccer federation’s refereeing committee from 1994-2018. Barcelona says the money was for techincal reports on referees and youth players. Those payments, which have yet to be linked to any illegal or improper activity by the club, came to light as part of a tax probe into the company.
In response to that initial report, Barcelona issued a statement saying it was “aware of the investigations into payments of external companies.” The club said it had hired the company as an external consultant to produce “reports in video format of youth players from other clubs in Spain” and for “reports related to professional refereeing.”
Getting reports on referees is common practice and clubs can pay other companies or have them prepared internally, as Barcelona now does. It’s not known if other clubs also got them from Enríquez Negreira’s company.
But new reports of even more money flowing from Camp Nou’s coffers to Enríquez Negreira emerged Friday in leading Spanish newspapers El Pais and El Mundo.
According to El Pais, the payments by Barcelona to Enríquez Negreira reached 7 million euros ($7.5 million) and started back in 2001. If so, that would mean Barcelona kept paying Enríquez Negreira during different club presidents, including from 2003-10 under the first term of current president Joan Laporta, who again took charge in 2021.
Meanwhile, El Mundo reported that Enríquez Negreira had threatened then-Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu to create a “scandal” when the club decided to stop paying for his company’s services in 2018.
In an interview with Spanish newspaper ABC on Friday, Bartomeu said he ended the contract with the company to reduce costs and that the club never tried to seek favor from referees. He added that in exchange for the money the club received referee reports “in written form and in DVD” for every game for its first team and its “B” team.
“It looks like with this service we were asking for more penalties in our favor or that we wanted to condition the referees’ decision, but it is not true. This person (Enríquez Negreira) had zero power of the referees,” Bartomeu said.
Former club president Joan Gaspart, who ran Barcelona from 2000-03, when the payments allegedly started, has denied any knowledge of them.
Barcelona told The Associated Press it has started its own investigation with outside help to “guarantee maximum efficiency.”
The state prosecutors office would not confirm the information published by El Pais and El Mundo when asked by the AP. It limited its response to saying that official investigations have been ongoing for months.
Laporta has defended his club and said it is “not a coincidence that this comes out now when the things are going well for the team,” which leads the Spanish league and is seeking its first league title since 2019.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez even weighed in on the case.
“We are going to wait for the governing bodies of the Spanish league to clarify the situation that unfortunately we are learning about through the media,” Sánchez said when asked about the matter while in Slovenia on Friday.
The Spanish soccer federation and its referee committee have said that they will fully collaborate with the investigation. The federation said Enríquez Negreira has had no role in the organization since it changed administration in 2018.
Luis Medina, who refereed from 1998-2009 and is now head of the committee that assigns referees to games, said this was a terrible moment for his guild.
“I have been involved in refereeing for 40 years and this is the saddest moment I have gone through,” Medina said Thursday, adding “I will put both my hands in the fire for every generation of referees that have given it their all on the field.”
Medina said while he was actively refereeing he never received any pressure of any type from Enríquez Negreira or anyone else to influence a result or favor a team. He said Enríquez Negreira had a minor role and that “he was a man in the shadows, and we did not know exactly what his responsibilities were.”
League president Javier Tebas said sporting sanctions such as loss of points or relegation would not be possible if any wrongdoing were proven because a three-year statute of limitations has already lapsed. Separate corruption charges, which would be criminal charges, would depend on the outcome of the investigation being conducted by prosecutors.
Even so, the potential reputational damage could threaten to further mar the image of a club that rose to the top of the sport under Lionel Messi and Pep Guardiola more than a decade ago.
Back in 2006, Laporta agreed to pay Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, to become the first sponsor name on Barcelona’s shirt while spurning lucrative deals, thus adding socially-minded luster to the winning club. But in recent years the Catalan club has been mired in scandals and the poor management of Bartomeu’s board, which left it so heavily indebted that it could no longer pay Messi’s salary.
Current Barcelona coach Xavi Hernández, a leading player for the club from 1998-2015, defended the honor of the club and its players.
“I am a fair person and I want to win games on the field,” Xavi said after Thursday’s 2-2 draw with Manchester United in the Europa League. “If I see that we cheat to win, I’m going home.”
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