Did Barcelona pay off refereeing official? Here’s what we know about emerging scandal

Josep Maria Bartomeu was the president of FC Barcelona while the club paid hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to a company owned by a high-ranking refereeing official. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Amid an on-field renaissance, FC Barcelona has become embroiled in a messy scandal involving payments to a shady company owned by the then-vice president of Spain’s top refereeing committee.

There is no proof that Barca, the Spanish league’s most successful club of the 21st century, used the payments to directly influence referees who presided over its games. But reports in Spain this week have revealed that, between 2001 and 2018, the club paid more than 6 million euros to the company, whose owner and sole administrator were the high-ranking referee committee official, Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira, and his son.

Barca has acknowledged the payments, and said in a Wednesday statement that it had “hired the services of an external consultant” that supplied “technical reports related to professional refereeing.” But several details have since emerged to inflame suspicions.

Here is what we know about a murky situation that, at best, seems to involve a blatant conflict of interest.

Who was Barca paying?

Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira refereed in Spanish soccer’s first division from 1975-1992, then, in 1994, became the vice president of the Comité Técnico de Árbitros (CTA), a committee within Spain’s soccer federation that oversees referees. He held that position until 2018.

Meanwhile, he owned a company called DASNIL 95. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the vast majority of the company’s revenue came from FC Barcelona. (In 2016, for example, according to documents revealed by Cadena SER, Barca paid the company 532,728 euros, and its total annual income was 567,136 euros.)

What was Barca paying for?

Barca officials and Negreira say that the payments were for consulting services. Either Negreira or his son, Javier — reportedly the company’s only employee — would allegedly deliver reports to the team’s sporting staff to help them understand what players could and couldn’t do in games overseen by certain referees.

“It is false and absurd to think that we paid off any referee,” Josep Maria Bartomeu, Barca’s former president, said Thursday. Their claim is that, essentially, they were scouting the refs. Why they were paying hundreds of thousands of euros for that service is unclear.

What reason is there to be suspicious?

All of this has come to light amid an investigation by a local prosecutor’s office into DASNIL’s financial records after tax inspectors flagged irregularities. The investigation has reportedly found that Negreira “did not provide any document proving that he provided a service to FCB.”

Negreira, in response to this, said that no documentation exists because he was verbally advising Barca, though Bartomeu has said that there were written reports and video analysis.

Barcelona has claimed that all of this is “common practice among professional football clubs,” but Negreira has admitted that he was working exclusively with Barca.

Barca then stopped the payments in 2018, around the time Negreira departed his position on the referees committee. (Bartomeu, who was president at the time, has justified this as a cost-cutting measure.)

The following year — according to a Friday report from El Mundo, a prominent Spanish newspaper — Negreira sent a fax to Barca threatening to expose the club unless they resumed their partnership. “If there is no agreement,” Negreira wrote, “all the irregularities will come out.”

What is the case for Barca’s innocence?

It’s unclear what, exactly, the “irregularities” or improprieties might be. But Negreira’s former colleagues have indicated that his ability to actually influence referees in his role as VP was very limited. He didn’t have the authority to appoint specific refs to specific matches.

Negreira himself has said that he never favored Barca in any way, and that all he would or could do was ensure the team was treated fairly and “neutrally.” (The club has long been skeptical of any institution affiliated with Spain’s soccer federation, the RFEF, which is based in Madrid, the home of Barca’s biggest rival, Real Madrid.)

Barca officials, meanwhile, have attempted to distract from the facts of the case by intimating that media reports are an effort to smear the club as it ascends toward a La Liga title. “It’s not a coincidence that this information has come out now,” current president Joan Laporta said in an address to fans. The club even wrote in its official statement: “Barcelona regrets that this information appeared just at the best sporting moment of the present season.”

Could Barca be punished?

La Liga president Javier Tebas said Thursday that the league will not hit Barca with sporting sanctions because a three-year statute of limitations has elapsed. (The payments ended in 2018.)

The local prosecutor’s investigation, however, remains ongoing, and could lead to criminal punishment for either Barca or Negreira, or both.

Spain’s soccer federation, meanwhile, has also said it will investigate. The CTA, its referees committee, said in a statement that “no active referee or member of the CTA bodies may carry out any work that is likely to constitute a conflict of interest. The CTA is making itself available to authorities to offer its full collaboration with any type of information it can provide.”

So, while Barca’s culpability is uncertain, at the very least, Negreira’s reputation will likely take a severe hit. In fact, it already has. El Pais, a Madrid-based newspaper, framed him as either “corrupt” or “a conman,” in that he had milked millions of euros out of Barca while “selling snake oil,” as one former referee put it.

“He is a mug,” a former federation employee told El Pais. “Without having a relevant role in refereeing, he has taken advantage of his situation.”


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