The image of Barcelona over the last five years has sometimes resembled that of a Sunday league pub side with a crooked treasurer, rather than one of the biggest sporting institutions in the world.
Instead of the subs money disappearing and the club being investigated for fielding ringers in the County Cup there’s been that ever-increasing hole in the club’s €1billion (£863m) finances and the various ways in which board members might have enabled the situation to reach its current crisis point and what they might be doing to cover their tracks.
This is the week leading up to the March 7 elections at Barcelona and I thought I would be reporting on the various versions of the brand new dawn that’s about to break.
Barcelona has been run more like a pub team than one of world football’s heavyweight clubs
Camp Nou was raided by police on Monday morning as part of investigation into ‘Barcagate’
Instead it’s just another in a long line of charades not befitting a sporting entity of Barça’s class and grandeur.
There was a presidential candidate debate over the week but who cares about that now that the Camp Nou has been raided and the former Barcelona president taken in for questioning by police.
Speaking to people who have had dealings with the club I have always been assured that what has happened at Barcelona in recent years has happened not because of corruption but because of rank incompetence.
Time will tell if that analysis turns out to have been accurate.
Former president Josep Maria Bartomeu oversaw the club’s demise and was taken in for questioning by police over his role in the alleged smear campaign against star names
The raids relate to a sorry sequence of events that were first reported on a year ago when Spanish radio station Cadena Ser revealed that a company hired to monitor Barcelona’s presence on social media was linked to a series of social media accounts that ran negative stories about club figures who were in potential opposition to president Bartomeu.
A subsequent investigation by audit company PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) ruled that Barcelona had not commissioned the company i3 Ventures to run a smear campaign against important club figures.
It also said the club had not paid the company over market price but Spanish paper El Mundo reported that the police had concluded that an audit commissioned by an interested party could not be ‘conclusive’ and wanted to continue their investigation.
Officials are accused of launching a smear campaign against current and former players who were critical of the club and then-president Bartomeu, including Lionel Messi
Payments to the company added up to €1m (£860,000) and had been broken down into amounts of less than €200,000 (£170,000) meaning they evaded the club’s internal checking mechanism.
Six board members subsequently quit, including Emili Rousaud who made the startling statement to Catalan radio RAC1: ‘I think someone has had their hand in the till, although I don’t know who.
‘You pay €1m (£860,000) [to I3 Ventures] for a job that has a market price of €100,000 (£86,000).’
Bartomeu has always denied any wrong doing but on Monday he was picked up at his home in the city and taken in for questioning.
The expectation in Barcelona is that he will be released without charge later on Monday but as favourite to be next Barça president, Joan Laporta said this is ‘bad for the image of the club’.
Barcelona have huge debt problems after Bartomeu’s time as president.
One online commentary on the images of the police making there way into the club offices summed up the deep crisis at the club. It said: ‘Well, one things for sure, they won’t find any money there.’
Barcelona have huge debt problems after Bartomeu’s time as president and awful recruitment has left the club with a squad full of issues
Barcelona RAIDED: Police arrest super-club’s ex-president Josep Bartomeu, their CEO, head of legal and search offices for evidence over social media ‘smear campaign’ against Lionel Messi and Co
Josep Maria Bartomeu has been arrested by Spanish police for his involvement in the ‘Barcagate’ smear campaign scandal during his time as their club president.
Bartomeu is one of four people to have been arrested so far, with Barcelona’s CEO Oscar Grau and head of legal services Roman Gomez Ponti two of those. Jaume Masferrer, who acted as an adviser to Bartomeu, is the other.
On Monday morning, Spanish police entered Barcelona‘s Nou Camp stadium in a search and seize operation. Bartomeu was arrested at home. The Economic Crimes Unit of the Catalonia Police Force are overseeing the searches.
Spanish media said the operation was related to last year’s ‘Barcagate,’ in which club officials were accused of launching a smear campaign against current and former players who were critical of the club and then-president Bartomeu.
Star man Lionel Messi, veteran defender Gerard Pique and former manager, now Manchester City boss, Pep Guardiola were among those targeted by the negative stories and social media posts.
Cadena Ser claimed that I3Ventures, hired by Barcelona, manages various social media accounts on Twitter and Facebook where negative stories about Messi, his wife Antonela, Pique, Guardiola, Xavi, Carles Puyol and former president Joan Laporta.
Barcelona’s former president Josep Maria Bartomeu has been arrested by Spanish police
Roman Gomez Ponti, head of legal services at Barcelona, is another who has been arrested
For example, stories about Messi centred on him delaying the signing of his new contract, a particularly divisive issue within the club last summer as the Argentine stood on the brink of leaving. He is still due to leave this expire when his contract expires. It was claimed Barcelona had been using the services of I3Ventures since 2017 and six different invoices have been billed totalling almost €1million.
Last September, it was reported that the Catalan police had filed a report to the judge investigating Barcelona’s hiring of social media consultancy I3 Ventures and ‘possible economic crimes’.
The allegation, according to El Mundo, was that Barcelona paid up to 600 per cent above the going rate for the services of I3 Ventures who were employed to monitor Barcelona’s social media.
It was claimed that these accounts ran negative stories about club figures who were in potential opposition to Bartomeu.
Back in July 2020, an investigation by audit company PricewaterhouseCoopers cleared Barcelona of any wrongdoing and ruled they did not commission I3 Ventures to run a smear campaign against important club figures.
At the time Barcelona insisted the audit cleared them of all wrong doing and issued a statement threatening to sue the media outlets who originally published accusations of foul play if they did not rectify.
The statement read: ‘After months of having lived with defamatory accusations on this matter, Barcelona asks those media outlets who made the charges of improper behaviour against our organisation to proceed to rectify that information, given that it has no basis and has been denied by a report that has been put together with unlimited access to the information requested about the club and its executives.’
But police have continued to investigate the matter and initially raided the club’s offices at the iconic Nou Camp stadium last June as they sought vital evidence.
I3 Ventures were linked to accounts that ran negative stories about club figures who were in potential opposition to Bartomeu – with the ex-president having been in with star Lionel Messi
Police officials returned on Monday with reports revealing employees who work in the offices were asked to leave while officers searched for more evidence.
Speaking in February 2020, Barcelona admitted having hired I3Ventures but stringently denied that I3Ventures had any link to the social media accounts that have emitted the negative stories about Messi, Pique and Guardiola among others.
The statement claimed all ties will be cut with the company if any links are proved too.
I3Ventures also issued a statement in which it said it was not true that they were the authors of various channels in social media – ‘Justicia y dialogo en el deporte’, ‘Alter Sports’, ‘Jaume un film de terror’, ‘Respeto y deporte’, ‘Mes que un club’ – behind the negative coverage of some of the club’s biggest name.
Bartomeu and his board of directors resigned in October amid fallout from the controversy surrounding Messi last summer. Bartomeu was at the centre of Messi’s criticisms when the Argentine announced his shock transfer request to Barcelona earlier this summer.
One of the stories referred to Messi’s wife Antonella (pictured here with the Argentine forward)
The Barcelona captain revealed the president did not keep his word about letting Messi leave the club if he wanted to, as the 33-year-old tried to move on a free transfer due to a clause in his contract.
Messi told Goal in September: ‘I told the president and, well, the president always said that at the end of the season I could decide if I wanted to go or if I wanted to stay and in the end he did not keep his word.’
The scandal adds to Barca’s woes with club mired in political turmoil and debt prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.
The operation comes less than a week before presidential elections are to be held at the club.