The police in Spain raided the headquarters of F.C. Barcelona on Monday, seizing evidence and detaining four people. The arrests, less than a week before the club’s presidential election, created another crisis for a soccer behemoth brought low by crippling debt, boardroom infighting and poor performances on the field.
A spokeswoman for Mossos d’Esquadra, Catalonia’s regional police force, said its economic crimes unit had seized evidence from Barcelona’s offices on Monday and confirmed four people had been detained. She added that the investigation was continuing but, citing police policy, declined to name the individuals.
Multiple news media outlets reported that the four people detained were prominent current and former executives of the club: the former president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, who resigned as the club’s president last year, shortly before he was to face a vote of no confidence; Oscar Grau, the club’s chief executive; Roman Gomez Ponti, its head of legal services; and Jaume Masferrer, an adviser to Bartomeu.
Barcelona said in a statement that the club had offered “full collaboration” to the authorities in their investigation.
Investigators have been looking into Barcelona’s affairs for months, after incendiary revelations suggested the club had secretly hired an external marketing company to produce disparaging social-media content about some of its most important and high-profile players, including Lionel Messi and Gerard Piqué, and other critics of the club’s leadership.
The team denied wrongdoing and hired a consultant, PWC, to complete an audit of its relationship with the marketing company, I3 Ventures, but the police continued their investigation.
When Barcelona published a report on the audit, it revealed that the contract with I3 Ventures — for almost 1 million euros (about $1.2 million) — was determined to be well above market value. The auditors’ report also said the payments to the marketing company were divided in a way that they would avoid oversight by the club’s financial overseers, who scrutinize all expenditures of more than 200,000 euros.
The police investigation into Barcelona has been closely followed by Spanish news media, which has labeled the affair “Barcagate.” Bartomeu said in February that he had no idea the company was involved in spreading negative content targeting Barcelona players, and although the club terminated the contract, the stain remained.
The raid on the club’s offices come only six days before Barcelona’s 140,000 members will elect Bartomeu’s successor, and it is another hit to the reputation of a club that for years had portrayed itself as a benchmark in world soccer. The club portrays itself as an organization with values that put it in a class of its own, operating under the slogan, “More than a club.”
Two of the three candidates in Sunday’s presidential election were quick to react to the news of the raids. Joan Laporta, a former Barcelona president who led the club at the start of the team’s most recent era of dominance, described the events as “shocking.”
Laporta, a lawyer whose previous stewardship of the club involved sporting success but also an earlier brush with financial calamity, said Bartomeu should be presumed innocent, but acknowledged that Monday’s raids “greatly damage the image and reputation of our club.”
Toni Freixa, who as a member of the previous board is the candidate most aligned with Bartomeu, posted a cryptic message on Twitter in which he suggested dark forces were behind the events. “Too many people wanting to hurt Barça,” he wrote. “We will not allow it. You’ll never walk alone.”
The third presidential candidate, businessman Victor Font, a longtime critic of the previous administration, did not respond to a request for comment.
Bartomeu’s resignation in October came several months after a humiliating 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich eliminated the club from last season’s Champions League, Europe’s richest club soccer competition, and as a public falling out with Messi, arguably the greatest player in the game’s history, saw him briefly threaten to leave the club.
Messi later backed down and announced he would stay rather than drag the issue through the courts. But his contract allows him to leave when the current season ends in May.
Bartomeu has been fighting negative headlines for more than a year, and his tenure as president, which began in 2014 amid an earlier financial scandal involving his predecessor, has been marked by periods of turbulence. Last spring, six members of the club’s board resigned and went public with their criticism of Bartomeu.
At the heart of their falling out was the contract with I3 Ventures, and allegations that it was behind fake social media accounts — purporting to be Barcelona supporters — that attacked those perceived to Bartomeu’s opponents. Those included Font, an outspoken candidate who was even then positioning himself to become the club’s next president, and popular players like Messi and Piqué.
The team’s finances are also more precarious than at any time in its recent history. Earlier this year, it published financial statements showing it owed more than 1 billion euros, about $1.2 billion, to its lenders, tax officials and rival clubs, with more than 600 million euros required to be paid in the short term.
The club has entered emergency talks with banks to find a solution to its problems, and club officials are also weighing selling some of the team’s commercial assets to investors to raise as much as $250 million.
The club has played without spectators this season because of the coronavirus pandemic, as is the case for most teams in Europe, and the team’s revenue forecasts have cratered. The club’s cavernous Nou Camp stadium and museum are ordinarily two of the most visited tourist sites in Spain, and the loss of those revenues and other income could reach as much as 600 million euros, club executives recently told The Times.
On the field, the picture is hardly better.
Even though Messi returned, the club’s performance has been a shadow of its dominating past. Barcelona endured yet another Champions League humiliation last month, losing by 4-1 against Paris St.-Germain in the first leg of its two-game, round-of-16 match. The defeat means elimination from this year’s tournament is all but assured.
Barcelona has rallied from a poor start to move into second place in the Spanish league table, but it is still five points behind the leader, Atlético Madrid, whose success in part has been attributed to the goals of striker Luis Suárez, whose contract was canceled by Barcelona before the start of season.