An awful lot of people have had an awful lot of things to say about Barcelona paying the vice president of the referee's committee almost €7 million over 17 years, but apart from a brief tweet on Sunday morning when much of the world was still enjoying a lie in, the president of Barcelona isn't one of them.
Four weeks have passed since the story broke, with details emerging almost daily, and voices growing in volume. Yet at a club where coach Xavi Hernandez talks four times a week, a president usually quite fond of public speaking has gone a little quieter than normal. Don't worry, though, because in the week in which it was revealed that state prosecutors will bring a case against the club, president Joan Laporta said they were preparing a news conference.
The whole thing started with a tax investigation that revealed three payments of €532,728, €541,752 and €318,200 made to a company owned by Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira. A referee between 1977 and 1992, Negreira was the vice president of the Comite Tecnico de Arbitros, the body in charge of the officials in Spain, between 1994 and 2018. The problem, the tax inspectors found, was that there was no evidence that he actually did anything tangible in return for the money. And so they passed it on to state investigators, which is where it started to unravel.
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You probably know most of the details by now. How Negreira earned almost €7m from Barcelona going back at least until 2001, taking in four different presidencies. How the club were said to be virtually the only clients his company DASNIL 95 had. How then-president Josep Maria Bartomeu stopped paying him in 2018, the same year Negreira stopped being vice president of the referees' committee.
How Negreira reportedly responded angrily to being cut by writing to demand more than €200,000 in unpaid fees, telling them that he took it as a personal affront and that scandal wouldn't be good for them, and threatening to reveal the "irregularities". How he allegedly later wrote to them to offer his services again, saying that the club could do with them now that VAR had been adopted. How he would regularly take out large quantities of cash, destination unknown. And how despite those payments -- increased to more than half a million euros a year by Laporta -- he didn't appear to accrue assets.
You will have heard all those things -- and none of this is contested -- and plenty of interpretations as to what it all means, many of those interested. You may have heard the vice president of the CTA just wasn't that important, just as in that first week you may have heard the current referees head Luis Medina Cantalejo say that no one really knew what Negreira did.
Gab Marcotti explains why LaLiga have to leave the investigation to the Spanish authorities.
When the story broke, Laporta gave a brief statement in a video recorded on a phone, which confirmed the payments. A video in which he said that Negreira worked as a consultant on refereeing issue, insisting that this was "very normal" and that "every club" does it. It was, he said, "not chance that this comes out now, when Barcelona are doing well." There would be an investigation, he said. Oh, and he said that Barcelona reserved the right to take legal action in defence of the club's honour.
And then he said ... well, nothing much except a rather benign tweet.
State prosecutors are now formally bringing a case against Barcelona -- as an institution -- for corruption within a sporting sphere. The payments can't be justified nor can the final destination of the money be fully traced; part of the accusation related to a falsification of documents. There in black and white, not in a report but a legal document, all the transactions itemized, the men involved directly identified with their initials, the beginning of a process likely to end with the club in court, it makes for bad reading.
State investigators had previously cited Negreira as saying that his role was to ensure that Barcelona got "neutrality" in issues relating to refereeing. Now the formal accusation includes the allegation that the aim was for there to be a "tendency to favour Barcelona in refereeing decisions and this in the results." It directly cites the power to impact upon a referee's profession through performance evaluation, promotion, demotion and opportunities to officiate at international level. The case is brought as a case of corruption, potentially robbing from the club. To what end, the investigation must establish.
Former Barcelona president Bartomeu has been called to testify; he is under investigation. Other former presidents Joan Gaspart and Sandro Rosell, in addition to Laporta, have also been called to testify, as witnesses.
Laporta will have to talk. Since the story broke, he hadn't -- apart from that video and the tweet. The president who a few days before had held a news conference to go through every detail of Barcelona's management, fielding questions on signings and salary limits and the coach and the stadium architects over two long hours, this time left it at brief statements. New stuff came out, but there has been little response, hardly a defence of their honour.
There is a Spanish line: quien calla otorga. Roughly: he who remains silent speaks. Or: he who does not speak, speaks out. The silence, in other words, says much. Even if the silence says nothing, it invites the conclusion that it says it all. Which makes the silence stranger, if only from a communication strategy. If there is a perfectly rational explanation, explain it.
And then this week, Laporta spoke. At an event arranged by the Barcelona Equestrian club. In which journalists were not allowed access, able only to follow it on a stream. And those there did not ask, their concerns elsewhere.
Moderated by Santi Nolla, director of Mundo Deportivo, Laporta did address the case. Sort of. He said they had been preparing a news conference; in fact, it was planned for that very same day but he had this event, which was very bad luck. He said he did not know Negreira. "We did not buy referees and have never tried to," he said, even though they had paid Negreira -- to what end is another question. "The club will not be damaged" by this, he said, although it might have been a little late for that, and not just because he claimed: "There is a campaign to damage the club."
"Nothing happens by chance," Laporta said.