Explained | What is the latest scandal involving F.C. Barcelona?

Spanish football was rocked last month when it was revealed that Barcelona had paid millions of euros to potentially benefit from refereeing decisions for more than a decade.

Barcelona paid a company owned by the vice-president of the country’s refereeing committee.

The club has denied wrongdoing but is widely criticized across Spain and prosecutors formally accused the club of corruption on Friday.

Here’s a look at the latest Barcelona scandal, which surfaced as the club was still trying to recover from one of its worst financial crises and the departure of Lionel Messi.

What happened?

Prosecutors say Barcelona paid up to 7.3 million euros ($7.7 million) to the committee’s vice-president José María Enríquez Negreira’s company from 2001 to 2018, in amounts that were “unjustified are because they have not been provided for in the club’s bylaws, nor have they been approved by its general assembly (of the club’s members).”

The payments were allegedly made in exchange for technical reports on referees and youth players, though apparently in amounts in excess of market rates.

Collecting reports on referees is common practice and clubs can pay other companies or have them drawn up in-house, as Barcelona are doing now. However, it is not common practice to give large sums of money to the company of a person involved in running the Spanish referees for the reports.

The payments were investigated as part of a tax investigation into the company of Enríquez Negreira, a former referee who was a member of the Spanish Football Federation’s Refereeing Committee from 1994 to 2018, when the payments stopped. The committee is responsible, among other things, for selecting the referees for each match.

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There is no evidence so far that referees or match results were actually influenced during the period Barcelona made the payments.

Formal charge

Prosecutors accused Barcelona of alleged corruption in sport, fraudulent management and falsification of commercial documents.

The allegations are aimed at Barcelona themselves, Enríquez Negreira, former Barcelona presidents Sandro Rosell and Josep Maria Bartomeu and former Barcelona executives Óscar Grau and Albert Soler.

Prosecutors said there was enough evidence to believe that Rosell and Bartomeu, who ruled Barcelona from 2010 to 2020, had “a confidential, oral agreement” with Enríquez Negreira, who was to carry out grooming “for money” at the Barcelona Football Club in the decision making process of the referees in Barcelona matches and in the results of the competitions.”

Barcelona paid off Enríquez Negreira’s company during various club presidential stints, including from 2003 to 2010 under the first term of current president Joan Laporta, who took charge again in 2021. However, Laporta is not charged by prosecutors and has denied any wrongdoing.

What Barcelona says

The club has denied any wrongdoing or conflicts of interest. It has acknowledged the regular payments made to Enríquez Negreira’s company but said they were for technical reports only and would not seek to influence refereeing decisions.

Barcelona are yet to fully explain their relationship with Enríquez Negreira. The club said it has hired an independent firm to conduct its own investigation and is expected to give a more detailed account of what happened when it is complete.

President Laporta said: “Barça are innocent of the allegations against him and are the victim of a campaign now involving everyone to damage his honor.”

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Enríquez Negreira told Cadena SER Radio that he has never favored Barcelona when assigning referees for matches and his job is to only verbally help the club on how players should behave in front of each referee.

Bartomeu also denied wrongdoing, telling ABC newspaper Enríquez Negreira he has “zero power over referees.”

Barcelona coach Xavi said the matter does not affect his players. The team was eliminated from the Europa League but remained in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey and at the top of the Spanish league.

The accusers

The Spanish league, the country’s football federation and most clubs have expressed their concern and intention to take action against Barcelona. They said the affair was damaging the reputation of Spanish football and the sport in general.

Spanish league president Javier Tebas said Laporta should resign if he couldn’t properly explain the payments.

“I think this is the worst moment in Spanish football,” said Tebas Movistar On Monday. “It’s embarrassing that we still don’t have a convincing explanation from Barcelona.”

Madrid called for an urgent board meeting on Sunday and expressed their “extreme concern at the gravity of the facts” surrounding Barcelona. It said it would face the rival in the court case to defend its “legitimate rights” as an “affected party” in the matter.

The top sports authority of the Spanish government also announced measures. José Manuel Franco, president of the Spanish Sports Council, told Telecinco on Monday that the government would join the other prosecutors in the court case. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez commented on the case and said the government is waiting for clarification on the matter.

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The Spanish FA noted that Enríquez Negreira left the committee after the new government took over in 2018.

Spain’s referees publicly distanced themselves from the relationship between Barcelona and Enríquez Negreira. Many former referees active when Enríquez Negreira was their vice-president said they never received any pressure from him or other officials.

What’s next for the club?

An investigating judge will decide whether the allegations made by the prosecutor’s office should result in an indictment.

Sporting sanctions against Barcelona were not initially considered as the statute of limitations on possible irregularities had expired, but if the club are finally convicted it could potentially lead to a suspension from competitions.

There was no immediate timetable for the courts’ next steps.

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