miércoles, abril 24, 2024
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Will they face UCL ban?

Two months after the story first broke, Barcelona president Joan Laporta came out swinging in a two-hour news conference on Monday, but there remain as many questions as answers surrounding the refereeing controversy that has rocked the Spanish champions-elect.

Barca should be preparing to celebrate a first LaLiga title since 2019 — they are 11 points clear at the top with nine games to play — but instead the focus is off the pitch. In March, a court opened an investigation into payments totaling over €7 million made by the club to companies owned by the former vice president of the refereeing committee, Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira, between 2001 and 2018. Barca insist the money was paid transparently and for legitimate services, with Negreira’s businesses providing the Catalan club with scouting reports and technical information on refereeing. Spanish prosecutors allege Barca were buying favour from match officials with the aim of influencing results, something the club strongly deny.

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As the fallout from the revelation of the payments continues, an argument between Laporta and LaLiga president Javier Tebas rages on; institutional relations between Barca and Real Madrid, which had improved in recent years, have been pushed to the breaking point; and, at the end of March, UEFA opened its own independent investigation. UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has called it an “extremely serious situation, one of the most serious I have seen since I have been involved with football,” with possible punishments including Barcelona being thrown out of next season’s Champions League.

In his news conference Monday, Laporta, ever the showman, fed the theory that there is an organised smear campaign against Barca, took potshots at Tebas and Madrid, attempted to justify the €7m outlay and stressed there is, as yet, no evidence against Barca.

Sources told ESPN that the “Negreira Case,” as it has been dubbed in the local media, could drag on for months, if not years and the fallout could be seismic for one of the biggest clubs in the game. So how did Barca get here, what are they accused of doing, and what happens next?

Who is Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira?

Negreira, 77, was a referee in LaLiga from 1977 to 1992 and later became the vice president of the refereeing committee in Spain. It was while he held the latter role that his companies, mainly DASNIL 95 SL — registered in Spain as an enterprise that sells advertising, printing and sports videos for marketing — received over €7m from Barcelona. He left his post on the committee in 2018, the same year his relationship with the club ended.

What are Barcelona accused of?

It first emerged on Feb. 15, following an investigation by the Spanish tax office, that Negreira’s companies received almost €1.4m from Barca between 2016-2018. The full extent of the earnings from Barca came out in the following days.

Before the inquiry became public, Negreira told tax authorities at the time that Barca had sought “neutral” treatment. He has not spoken since as, according to multiple reports, he has early-onset Alzheimer’s.

In March, prosecutors in Spain filed charges of sporting corruption, corruption in business, false administration and the falsification of commercial documents against Barca. It was the first time that, written down in black and white, Barca were accused of buying the favor referees. According to the prosecutors’ report, a copy of which was sent to ESPN, the club, former presidents Josep Maria Bartomeu and Sandro Rosell, and several former executives, had an agreement for Negreira to “carry out actions aimed at favouring Barcelona in the decision-making of the referees in the matches played by the club, and thus in the results of the competitions.”

A judge has since agreed to investigate the case, with LaLiga, the Royal Spanish Football Federation [RFEF] and Real Madrid among the other institutions to join the prosecutors’ complaint.

What do Barcelona say?

Barca do not deny that under four different presidents — Joan Gaspart (2000-2003), Laporta (2003-2010), Rosell (2010-2014) and Bartomeu (2014-2020) — they paid over €7m to Negreira’s companies. What they vehemently refute is that the money was spent to seek a sporting advantage.

To prove so, on Monday, Laporta, who was reelected as president in 2021, sat on stage as he spoke to journalists with folders containing what he said were over 600 reports and 43 CDs on referees and players that were compiled by Negreira’s son, Javier Enriquez Romero. Laporta said they were from the period 2014-2018. The club’s policy of destroying documents older than five years meant more reports were not available. Laporta said they were thorough, necessary, and put together by reputable people.

“They even have pictures,” he said at one point.

Laporta’s appearance mainly served as an opportunity to relay the theory that Barcelona are the victims. He labelled it the “fiercest” attack on the club ever, was especially critical of Tebas and Madrid, while he added the club had already filed 20 lawsuits against journalists for defamation. He didn’t rule out further legal action, either, suggesting Barca could be owed “an astronomical amount of compensation” as a result of the damage caused to their reputation.

Why are Laporta and Tebas sparring?

There is no love lost between Laporta and LaLiga chief Tebas. They have sparred in recent years over Barca’s refusal to sign the league’s €2 billion investment deal with private equity firm CVC Capital Partners, registering midfielder Gavi’s contract within the league’s strict financial fair play rules — both cases have ended up in court — and the European Super League.

The “Negreira Case” has taken their individual battle to the next level. Tebas has called it the “biggest reputational crisis ever in Spanish football” and repeatedly demanded Laporta give a satisfactory explanation, or resign.

Barca, meanwhile, said it should be Tebas resigning after an April newspaper report in La Vanguardia alleged he provided false evidence against the club as part of the investigation into the payments made to Negreira. According to the report, the documents were part of another case, not linked to ex-Barca presidents Rosell or Bartomeu and were decades old. Tebas responded on Twitter by saying that the title of the article was “false,” he did not “specifically accuse anyone” of anything, and accusing the journalist of “slander.”

“We are witnessing a public trial in which certain people are trying to harm those of us who have not bowed to their demands and wills — it is intolerable,” Laporta said on Monday. “In this sense, I would single out Tebas, who has acted irresponsibly and unprofessionally. With his constant statements, he has fueled the controversy and even provided false documentation to prosecutors. I would ask him to curb his verbal incontinence because it does no favours to the institution he represents.”

What do Real Madrid have to do with it all?

A high-ranking source at Barcelona described the club’s increasingly friendly relationship with Madrid as “growingly uncomfortable” last year, but it has been tested by the Negreira scandal.

Madrid — who are partners with Barca in the European Super League project and often their allies in fights with LaLiga and Tebas — maintained their silence when the other 18 LaLiga clubs released a statement “condemning the facts known so far” when Barca’s payments to Negreira first leaked. However, they decided to join the complaint filed by prosecutors in March as a claimant, which was the root of Laporta’s ire against them on Monday.

“They claim to feel aggravated in sporting terms,” he said. “This comes from a club, as we all know, that has been historically favoured by refereeing for 70 years — and still is nowadays. This is a club that was regarded as ‘the club of the [Franco] regime’ back in the day. Seeing this club join the complaint now and declare themselves disadvantaged in a sporting sense is an unprecedented show of cynicism.”

It was a remarkable statement and Madrid’s response was just as remarkable. They hit back on social media, saying Barca had been closer to Franco, who ruled Spain as a dictator between 1939 and 1975, with a four-minute video titled “Who was the club of the regime?”

Is Barcelona’s explanation acceptable?

ESPN spoke to sources at several LaLiga clubs to find out if there was widespread use of technical reports about refereeing. The majority were aware of such services but only some had utilised them. The reports include information about how a referee acts on the pitch, in terms of how they respond to certain events, such as handballs or high challenges, and their liability to be influenced by player protests or the home crowd.

Previous Barca coach Ernesto Valverde has said the reports were never made available to him, although he took over only in 2017, just before the club’s relationship with Negreira ended. Xavi Hernandez, the current manager, says he was aware of them in his playing days.

The bigger issue is the cost. Sources at five different Spanish clubs told ESPN Barca’s alleged spend on these services — something other clubs have also turned to — seemed excessive, though Laporta said Monday that it had to be put into context and the €7m was paid across 18 years. That, on average, is around €400,000 annually, although the money paid to Negreira increased over time. According to Laporta, in the final year of his first mandate, 2010, the price went up because the club needed scouting data and video analysis on a wider range of competitions. That was the other service Barca said Negreira’s company provided.

Laporta insists the price paid and the subsequent rises “were in line with market rates,” but Barca now carry out the same operations in-house for a fraction of the cost, although sources at the club would not confirm to ESPN exactly how much.

Adding to the confusion is the role of Negreira’s son, who is not listed as a defendent in the prosecutors’ case, and the deceased former Barcelona director Josep Contreras. The majority of the evidence provided by Laporta on Monday was reports compiled by Negreira’s son between 2013 and 2018. According to the tax office’s report, SOCCERCAM SL, a company owned by Negreira’s son that makes coaching videos, received €297,000 for the work. However, SOCCERCAM SL was not paid directly by Barca, but by a third-party company linked to Contreras, who died last year. Barca paid over €450,000 to the Contreras-linked business, leaving him with commission worth more than €150,000.

The suggestion was put to Laporta that if Contreras was taking a big cut, could that have been happening with other payments made to Negreira’s companies? Some reports in recent weeks had suggested former Barca executives could have been making money on the payments.

“Contreras is no longer with us, but those companies linked to him billed the club outside of my mandate,” Laporta said. “I do not have [reason] to doubt the presidents who succeeded me. If this hypothesis is [proved], Barca would be a victim and the club’s lawyers would defend us.”

How could they be punished?

Pending the outcome of the court’s investigation, Barca could face a large fine — court sources did not want to speculate how large because, they said, it is an unprecedented case in Spain — and the former presidents and executives, along with Negreira, could be sent to prison for up to 10 years if they are found guilty of the corruption charges against them.

Until there is a resolution from the judge, there are unlikely to be any sporting repercussions for Barca. Tebas has already confirmed LaLiga’s hands are tied following the introduction of a new sports law in Spain in which events that happened more than three years ago are exempt from punishment due to the timeframe.

However, there are no such restrictions for UEFA. Laporta appeared to pander to the European governing body on Monday, given it has the power to chuck Barca out of next season’s Champions League in line with regulations introduced in 2007. He thanked UEFA for “not falling into Tebas’ trap,” despite Ceferin’s comments, and also showed gratitude to FIFA and the RFEF for prudence on the matter.

If FIFA were to get involved, they could potentially dock points from Barca domestically or even relegate them, although there is no precedent for them acting so forcefully at this level. They have so far declined to comment on the scandal when approached by ESPN. Meanwhile, the RFEF face the same time constraints as LaLiga.

What happens now?

Sources close to the case suggest that until there are advances with the criminal proceedings, everything remains on standby, although more bickering between Laporta and Tebas can’t be ruled out.

Once there is clarity in the courts, UEFA and other footballing institutions are likely to decide what route they take. UEFA doesn’t have to be guided by the judge’s decision, though, as its own regulations are different. It can kick clubs out of European competitions for “any activity” deemed to be “arranging or influencing the outcome of a match.”

“We didn’t see any ethical conflicts,” Laporta said. He also repeatedly tried to stress that the main relationship was with Negreira’s son, “who has worked with various clubs [later mentioning Valencia and Girona], the Spanish federation and with [ex-Spain coach] Luis Aragones. It wasn’t ridiculous to hire his services.”

Barca’s other concern is that the reputational damage done by the scandal can’t be reversed. Former coach Ronald Koeman said last week that the club’s image has been tainted in the Netherlands, a country where they have strong links, and sources at the club told ESPN they fear that is the case around the world. That is why Laporta was so strong in saying he will push through legal action.

That damage has already had a knock-on effect in terms of sponsors and relationships with financial entities. A source confirmed to ESPN that, in negotiations for €1.5bn in funding to redevelop Camp Nou, lenders expressed concerns that Barca’s ability to repay the loan would be affected by the crisis. The worry is that any sanctions would hit the club’s revenue hard, be that in sponsorship reductions or a loss of prize money from being omitted from European football. To counter that point, Barca said they could fill European midweek slots with glamour friendlies to keep the money coming in.

Beyond bans and fines, there is so much on the line for Barcelona, who brand themselves “more than a club.” The period in question includes the golden era under manager Pep Guardiola [2008-2012] and four Champions League triumphs [2006, 2009, 2011, 2015.]

“Throughout 125 years of history, this club has been a model of fair play on and off the pitch,” Laporta said. “We don’t like winning with help from referees. Our enemies won’t succeed with their campaign against. We have won thanks to the effort and talent of our players, coaches, staff, members and fans.”

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