Barcelona threaten legal action over accusations of Messi, Pique attacks

Barcelona have threatened to take legal action after it was alleged they paid a third-party company to discredit players, club legends and presidential candidates, among others.

SER Catalunya reported on Monday that I3 Ventures was contracted by the club with the initial idea of helping to clean up president Josep Maria Bartomeu's image.

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Sources have told ESPN that the club have been working with I3 Ventures since the beginning of 2017. The Argentine company, which has bases in Madrid and Barcelona, has received just under €1 million from the Catalan club for running various campaigns.

As well as defending Bartomeu, I3 Ventures, which administers a number of Facebook and Twitter accounts, is also alleged to have attacked people related to the club, including Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique.

In a strongly worded response, Barca denied that they or I3 Ventures have any connection to the social media profiles which published the posts that have been flagged.

"We roundly deny any relationship, and furthermore, the contracting of services linked to social media accounts that have broadcast negative or disparaging messages related to any person, entity or organisation that may be, or have been, related to the club," a statement read.

"I3 Ventures, a service provider to the club, has no relationship with the accounts mentioned and, if any relationship was to come to light, the club would immediately end their contractual agreement and bring about any necessary legal action to defend their interests.

"The club demands an immediate rectification of the information published and reserves the right to exercise legal action against those who continue to implicate the club in such practices."

Barca explained that their relationship with I3 involved "monitoring of social media with the aim of analysing both positive and negative messages about the organisation itself."

Among the posts revealed by SER Catalunya, Pique was criticised for his involvement in organising the Davis Cup, while Messi and his wife, Antonella Roccuzzo, were also targeted. However, on many other occasions, campaigns were run in defence of Messi, praising the club's record goal scorer.

Club legends Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol and Pep Guardiola have also been discredited by accounts allegedly run by I3, as have presidential candidates Agusti Benedito and Victor Font.

Benedito responded on Monday when he said he would file a lawsuit against Bartomeu and his board of directors if the allegations were proven.

Font, meanwhile, said the club's board must come out immediately and offer an explanation because the allegations are "extremely worrying."

"It means that, with the club's money, the board of directors have targeted their own members, first-team players, Catalan social entities and media," Font said in a statement.

"This defamation campaign borne from the results of a journalistic investigation stains Barca, shames us club members and makes the club's situation even worse because, in addition to the delicate sporting and economic situation, moral bankruptcy has also been added."

It is the second time in two weeks that Barcelona have made headlines for the wrong reasons off the pitch.

On Feb. 4, Messi engaged in a war of words with Eric Abidal after the Barcelona sporting director suggested Ernesto Valverde was fired because the players were not happy with him.

Clear-the-air talks with Bartomeu the next day helped cool the atmosphere at the club, but tension remains behind the scenes.

Bartomeu has a mandate to preside over the club until 2021 but sources close to the club suggest it is not out of the question that an election takes place this year. Bartomeu, who is in his second term as the club's president, will not be able to stand, but the board of directors will offer an alternative candidate.

Meanwhile, Barca remain in the hunt for two trophies. They are one point behind Real Madrid at the top of La Liga and face Napoli in the round of 16 of the Champions League next week. They were eliminated from the Copa del Rey by Athletic Bilbao.