It’s a sign of Barcelona’s evolution as a club that, in the build-up to last night’s El Clásico, the Catalan hype machine had focused on how their big defender Ronald Araujo was going to nullify Madrid’s brilliant winger Vinicius Jr. After nine minutes, Vini Jr dribbled and smashed in a cross that Araujo deflected into his own net.
Barcelona equalised after 45 minutes when Sergi Roberto pounced on a loose ball in the Madrid penalty area. On 81, Sergio Asensio’s goal was ruled out for offside, and on 92, Barcelona snatched the winner through Frank Kessie.
The win sent Barcelona 12 points clear at the top of the league, but even victory over their greatest rivals cannot long soothe the air of dread at the club, as an epic off-field scandal threatens to engulf them.
On February 15th, Cadena SER radio broke the first news of what has become known as “El Caso Negreira”, reporting that the Spanish public prosecutor was investigating a 77-year old former vice-president of the Referee’s Technical Committee, Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira, in relation to payments his company had received from FC Barcelona between 2016 and 2018, supposedly in exchange for vaguely defined “refereeing reports”.
Barcelona president Joan Laporta responded that it was “very normal” for clubs to commission such reports, and suggested it was “no coincidence that this comes out now, when Barcelona are doing well.”
But the following day, the newspaper El País reported that Barcelona had actually paid a total of €7.3 million to companies controlled by Negreira and his son between 2001 and 2018. The newspaper El Mundo added more detail with an exclusive on the communications between Negreira and Barcelona after their strange arrangement had come to an end.
In May 2018 Negreira had retired from his position as vice-president on the referee’s technical committee. Two months later, Barcelona stopped paying him. Negreira was furious. In January 2019 he sent a Burofax (registered letter) demanding the payment of €267,000 he believed he was owed for the second half of 2018. The letter said that if this payment was not honoured, Negreira would feel “released from any duty of fidelity and/or confidentiality in relation to FC Barcelona as well as to all the presidents with whom he has dealt, especially Mr. Bartomeu”.
When Barcelona told him that as far as they were concerned, the commercial relationship no longer existed, Negreira sent another letter making further veiled threats. According to El Mundo, this letter included the lines: “If there is no agreement, all the irregularities of the club that I have known and experienced first-hand will come out without consideration ... I don’t think another scandal will favour the club.”
The weeks since have seen a cascade of further sensational details. In their initial investigation, the Spanish tax authorities noted that Negreira had received expenses from the Spanish football federation for his role with the refereeing committee, and also established that he did most of his day-to-day spending using a personal Visa card. However, they were intrigued to find that Negreira was also in the habit of making frequent cash withdrawals from his company’s business account. El Confidencial reported that in 2016, Negreira spent €130,000 on his personal Visa, but also withdrew €170,000 in cash from the company account. In 2017, he withdrew €210,000 in cash.
Sometimes the cash withdrawals – usually in amounts of less than €3,000 at a time – were made for Negreira by a friend, who told El País this weekend, “The thing I never understood was how he was doing so well with a gift company that sold personalised pens.” In reality almost all the money flowing into Negreira’s company originated with FC Barcelona. In 2018, the last half-year of the arrangement, his company reported revenues of €329,373; in 2019, after the scheme had stopped, earnings dropped to €7,348.
What was Negreira doing with all that cash? Prosecutors could not find evidence that he had invested it in real estate or other assets. The tax inspectors speculated that he could have used the cash to pay referees, or even to pay off officials at Barcelona in order to keep the scheme running.
Negreira declined the opportunity to appear before the prosecutor’s office to explain his side of the story, citing Alzheimer’s. Nevertheless, on March 10th, the public prosecutor formally charged Barcelona with “corruption in sports, unfair administration and falsehood in commercial documents.” The prosecutors allege that Barcelona and Negreira had reached a secret agreement under which Negreira, “in exchange for money” would use his influence “in the decisions taken by referees in the games played by the club, as well as in the results of the competitions” to favour Barcelona.
An unnamed Barca official told Reuters that this was nothing more than a “preliminary hypothesis” on the part of the prosecutors, and insisted that Barcelona “have never bought any referee nor have tried to influence any official’s decisions.”
President Laporta has lately been avoiding media engagements, preferring to address the snowballing scandal in friendly or semi-private forums, with rhetoric that has grown increasingly paranoid and aggressive. On March 11th he told a Barca supporters’ club dinner, “We are going to fight to the last drop of our blood to defend the honour and reputation of Barcelona.” On March 13th, at another club event with no media present, he claimed that the dark forces arrayed against Barca were motivated by jealousy of their world-renowned values.
“What FC Barcelona wanted was to make sure that no decisions were made against the club, that everything was neutral”
“Barca is a club with values. We use the word values not to look good, but because values really are a fundamental part of our sporting excellence model. And that is why Barca is admired and recognised throughout the world. It also happens that some, motivated by envy, try to erode our reputation with campaigns carried out in bad faith ... there have been some ferocious attacks to stain our badge, which have nothing to do with reality.”
His voice cracking as tears seemed about to well, he added: “Don’t think that I am getting emotional out of weakness. I am emotional because I really want to face all the shameless people that are staining our badge.”
However, Laporta has thus far failed to produce a convincing explanation for why his club paid a senior refereeing figure more than €7 million over 17 years. A couple of the “reports” that were allegedly produced as part of the deal have appeared in media reports: they are totally anodyne documents. It is unclear why Barca deemed it necessary to keep Negreira on what amounted to a retainer of €430,000 a year to give them reports that could have been compiled by any semi-competent intern.
The most detailed explanation of what Barcelona expected in exchange for their money has come from Negreira himself, during an interview with tax inspectors in October 2021: “What FC Barcelona wanted was to make sure that no decisions were made against the club, that everything was neutral.”
So by this account, Barca were secretly paying a member of the referee’s committee just so that they could be sure everything was in order with the referee’s committee. Athletic Bilbao’s fans showed what they thought of that when Barca visited last weekend by waving fistfuls of fake money bearing the Barca badge and the word MAFIA.
Laporta needs to offer a much better story than he has come up with so far, or this is what “Barca values” will have come to mean in the eyes of the world.