Barcelona-Athletic Club is usually a notable fixture in LaLiga. As it should be. Two historic clubs, notable and recognizable throughout the country, with tremendous cultural and historic influence within the story of Spanish sport and within the history of their respective cultural regions, each having their struggles under Franco’s rule and each having vied for independence in the past. Both sides, especially recently, are usually at least fairly good or contending for something.
Barça’s trip to the Basque Country in early March featured something quite different. Something very timely, given recent news. During the match, fans in Athletic’s grada animacion in the Tribuna Norte at San Mamés threw what appeared to be bundles of paper onto the pitch. The papers were fake bank notes. They were red and blue in color, bore Barcelona’s badge, and featured one singular word written on them: “MAFIA”.
This is the Caso Negreira scandal. Yet another instance of Barcelona’s past coming back to haunt them. Another instance where many are aggrieved at a club like Barça seemingly getting preferential treatment compared to the proletariat of the sport.
This all came about, weirdly enough, through a legal investigation not directly related to football. José María Enríquez Negreira was a long-time notable referee in Spanish football. The Catalan refereed in Spain’s top flight from 1979 all the way until his retirement in 1992, whereafter he remained somewhat involved within the sport in Spain but at a distance. Earlier this year, he got into some trouble with the Spanish government regarding tax issues and the reporting of income. The main question centered around payments to a corporate entity he owns called DASNIL 95. The media surrounding this investigation picked up specifically on three years of these payments, from 2016 to 2018, totaling a little over €1.3 million. The payments came from Futbol Club Barcelona. This is especially problematic as during that time, Enríquez Negreira was acting as Vice-President of the Comité Técnico de Árbitros (CTA), essentially the Referee’s Committee within the Spanish Football Federation, and the legal issue came up as Enríquez Negreira was initially unable to provide documentation of the services provided to Barcelona. Cadena SER got the story and ran with it, and here we are.
Now, it is important to add some context here. The relationship between Enríquez Negreira, his company, and Barcelona has allegedly existed for 17 years, dealing with multiple terms of Barcelona presidents and not just current culer villain Josep Maria Bartomeu. The bulk of the relationship pre-dates Enríquez Negreira’s involvement with the CTA, though it does not make the relationship during his time with that committee any less problematic and is still notable that the payments ceased the moment Enríquez Negreira left the CTA. And, most importantly, it is not uncommon for big clubs to form relationships with former referees in order to pay for services and reports from them. A club having a professional relationship with a former referee is not an immediate sign of attempted corruption or influence peddling. Real Madrid and Getafe, for example, both have former referees on their payrolls acting in completely legitimate roles and providing completely legitimate services within their clubs. I would not be surprised if other clubs, both within and outside of Spain, have a similar set up or relationships with former officials providing similar services.
The issue here is the conflict of interest. The bulk of Barça’s relationship with Enríquez Negreira, as far as we know, was probably fine and unproblematic. Those three years while he was in the CTA, however, seem like a big issue. It is those three years that are worthy of the current legal investigation, of the inquiries by the league and other teams, and of the ire of other supporters who believe Barcelona used this relationship to potentially fix matches or buy the support of active referees.
The main issue with trying to come to conclusions here is that, understandably, much of the detail of this story is still unknown. LaLiga, the Spanish Football Federation, and UEFA have all opened their own investigations into this matter, but each of those bodies has very little room for maneuvering here. This is, first and foremost, a legal matter involving both the Spanish government and local Catalan authorities. While the Barcelona prosecutor’s office explores any legal issues related to these payments, there is not much that anyone in the League, Federation, or UEFA can do. LaLiga President Javier Tebas has outwardly admitted that, due to how long ago the payments took place and relevant statute of limitations questions, the League may not be able to do anything on this. Everyone outside of Barça certainly wants action taken, but it is unclear what actually can happen.
And it might be difficult for anyone to ever get a definitive answer as to what happened. At least on paper, Enríquez Negreira was not in a position with the CTA to directly control which referees worked in specific games, but it could be fair to fear that a man in his position could use influence to have those decisions made. It would be a very difficult task for people to legally prove that Barcelona received preferential treatment from match officials during this time. Yes, Barça were champions in 2016 and 2018, but that team was also very good and could have been champions because of that alone. Unless evidence is found that proves otherwise, it would be hard to say that Enríquez Negreira provided anything more than the refereeing reports that Barça claims he provided, which would be nothing more than what other clubs have contracted former officials to do.
But do not get me wrong, this still looks TERRIBLE for Barcelona. The absolute best case scenario coming from this scandal is that Barça actively maintained a financial relationship for several years with an individual with whom they should not have a financial relationship. This looks very bad, and the reputational damage that has already been afflicted upon Barcelona and will continue to do so until this is resolved will not do the club any favors in dealing with the millions of other self-inflicted crises they are facing. Certainly in a time where the news was starting to turn, with Xavi’s Barça cruising to a league title this season and rumors of Messi returning in the summer, this scandal and the negativity surrounding it will hang over the club like an anvil waiting to drop on a Looney Tunes character. Could it affect future funding, investment, and sponsorship too? Maybe, maybe not. But it could be considered.
Ultimately, this may not be ever fully resolved. Especially given the statute of limitations argument, it is possible that we may never get a definitive answer to all of this. But none of that matters, as everyone discussing this has already cemented their side and their argument on the matter. Barça President Joan Laporta’s statement including a not-so-subtle accusation of conspiracy against Barcelona and a fervent desire to “defend the club” will likely be the blanket stance from culers and Barça-supporting media everywhere. Regardless of what evolves from this, it will always be a conspiracy against their club for them. It will tug at the historic idea of conspiracy that culers hold dating back to Franco’s rule. In 1976, referee Antonio Camacho said the now infamous quote that defines generations of Barcelona supporters’ relationship with the league and Spanish institutions when he said “While Jose Plaza stays as the chief of the referees’ association, Barcelona will never win the league title.” Was that fully grounded in reality? Probably not. Barça only won two league titles during Plaza’s nearly two-decade long run as head of the CTA, but again it is very hard to definitively prove these things. That will not stop people from talking about it, though.
But what is football if not a reflection of society? Especially now, we live in a world where everyone immovably sticks to their side of a dispute regardless of how it plays out. To Barça supporters, this is another piece of evidence of a league that is out to get them. They will be sure to bring up Messi’s wrongly disallowed goal against Atlético Madrid that cost them the league title in 2014. They will absolutely bring up Antonio Camacho’s quote and how they were forced by the league to let Messi leave a few years ago. And they will be sure to add in that Javier Tebas has admitted to being a Real Madrid supporter. For Madridistas, they will be sure to add this to their own conspiracies regarding the league and Barça, and they will be fishing for anything remotely problematic about the 2015/16 and 2017/18 seasons to see how the league was supposedly handed to Barcelona.
And for everyone else, this is another point of grievance among fanbases who feel that the league actively caters to their “Big Two”. The issue of TV revenue going mostly to them, the issue of the salary cap benefitting them due to their revenue, the previous issue of state support going to both of them, and now conspiracies that Barcelona were, quite literally, paying referees. Refereeing of matches has already been a topic this season, with Atlético Madrid being boisterous in their complaints toward the league regarding the refereeing of their games. This is just another arrow in the quiver of those aggrieved with the treatment of Spain’s main two teams, another reason for people to have had it up to their “huevos” with Barça and Madrid. The hostile reception for Barcelona in the Basque Country, the bank notes bearing “MAFIA”, and the chants of Barcelona’s relegation certainly come from a pent up frustration that many around Spain feel. Innocent or not, whenever or if ever Caso Negreira is resolved, that sentiment will not be going away.
Well, I hope I explained this all sufficiently. Just another normal few months for Barcelona. On their way to another league title but even more issues mounting. We can add this to their financial struggles, the need to offload salaries to register new signings, questions around whether they can register Gavi as a new player, questions around Messi’s possible return…
Yeah, it is an eventful time for Barcelona, to say the least.