What FC Barcelona will tell you is that their comfortable lead atop La Liga at the moment (nine points) is indicative of being recovered from their years in financial hell. That all the levers they pulled (and the symbolism of Barca constantly talking about pulling their levers is hard to miss) have paid off and they’re back not just where they used to live, among the elite, but where they used to rule and get first pick at the spread.
They’ll be shouting it louder these days, which is actually indicative of how much trouble they might be in. As of today, a Spanish judge agreed to investigate the club for, essentially, bribing referees. So everyone else in Spain, who spent a decade or more wondering how Barca kept getting the call they needed, a lament from all the proletariat against any superpower in soccer, might be getting their answer soon.
It’s not quite that simple, and yet it doesn’t seem all that far away from being that simple. Let’s dig further. Spanish prosecutors have alleged corruption against Barca, and specifically their two previous presidents Sandro Rosell and Josep Maria Bartomeu, for payments the club made under their direction to a company owned by a man named Enriquez Negreira, who just happened to be the vice president of Spain’s refereeing committee at the time. If it sounds fishy, that’s because it’s fishy as fuck.
What they’re saying
Both Barca and Negreira claim that the payments were merely for reports on referees, and how players should act or play when certain refs were working their matches. Which feels like one of the flimsiest defenses ever. Barca will say, and has said, it’s not much different than getting scouting reports on an upcoming opponent. Except when doing so, clubs don’t tend to pay people who are employed and part of the hierarchy in running the club they’re about to play. You wouldn’t see Brian Cashman asking the assistant GM of the Rays for reports on the Rays roster, one wouldn’t think.
If Barca had just hired their own scouts to provide reports on refs and how they managed games, fine. This is something else, and it doesn’t appear that either Barca or Negreira are trying to claim much else. And it’s not much of a leap to go from merely getting scouting reports to having these payments at least influence which refs worked Barca matches and which didn’t, or worse. Again, Negreira was vice-president of the reffing committee at the time.
What could happen to Barca is foggier. La Liga has a statute of limitations on this sort of thing, and seeing as how the payments stopped in 2018 (and thus are more than three years ago), the league has said there’s nothing they can do about it. However, the Spanish FA is watching closely as the legal process plays out, though it’s unlikely that the FA is going to step on the league’s toes with any kind of punishment. Any Madristas out there hoping that every single Barca title of the last 20 years will have to be vacated are probably pissing in the wind. UEFA is also on standby. Bartomeu and Rosell could just be punished individually, and that might be the extent of the punishment anyone associated with Barcelona could face. Former coaches or sources close to them, like Pep Guardiola and Ernesto Valverde, have said they knew nothing about these reports.
That UEFA part is the one Barcelona really has to worry about. UEFA no longer has a time limitation on this kind of thing (thank you Man City), and if UEFA were to get interested, they could cut off the Champions League money spigot that Barca so desperately need to get out of the financial hell-prison they put themselves in. Barca may get $61 million for winning La Liga, but they would get only $7 million less for finishing second or about $15 million less for finishing third. Their whole plan, with the levers and signings and hail marys, was based on a deep run in the Champions League. That didn’t work out this season (hilariously), but what we know of the club’s “planning” is that they would be counting on a run to the knockouts and deep into them next season, which can net a team tens of millions of more dollars, or euros in this case. But we’re a long way from that yet given that this has to run through the Spanish courts first.
Gavi ruled out by judge
That isn’t their only problem this week, because when Barcelona lights their face on fire they never spare the kerosene. The contract of one of their linchpins in midfield, Gavi, was ruled out by a judge this week, because Barca simply don’t have space in their enforced spending limit to fit him in. Or, more to the point, they filed the paperwork for his registration a day late. Gavi can still finish this season in the team, as he’s still under a youth contract having come up through the Barcelona system. But without a resolution, he can leave the club for free in the summer.
And he may have to, unless Barcelona once again gets ultra creative/shady to bend and stretch and subvert their payroll limits. La Liga president Javier Tebas says they still need to cut 200 million euros off their payroll for next season. Barca obviously think differently. It’s going to be the same rigamarole next summer that it was this past one.
It’s certainly never boring with the Catalans. But we’ve passed the point where it feels like it’s gone beyond something they can work their way out of. Whatever happens with the ref case, that stink is now attached to them whether they like it or not. The name “FC Barcelona” still draws a lot of water and is still the mecca for most players in the world. But how much longer is that going to last when they keep falling in their own septic tank?
If you’d like to watch Sam convince himself that Liverpool can beat Madrid 4-0 in Madrid and then light himself on fire, follow him on Twitter @Felsgate.