Continued Corruption: Barcelona Charged Over Payments To Former Referees Chief

Barcelona have been charged with corruption over payments they made to the vice-president of Spanish football’s refereeing committee.

Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira, who held that role between 1994 and 2018, is also facing charges of corruption in a case brought by the Spanish public prosecutor’s office, as is Josep Maria Bartomeu, Barca president from 2014-2020, and Sandro Rosell, president from 2010-2014.

Enriquez Negreira has denied ever favouring Barcelona in terms of refereeing decisions. Barca have explained they hired an “external consultant” who provided reports “related to professional refereeing” and also deny any wrongdoing. All parties — Barca, Enriquez Negreira, Bartomeu and Rosell — have been approached for comment by The Athletic.

If Barca are found guilty, what might happen?
News emerged in mid-February that prosecutors were investigating payments made by Barca to DASNIL 95, a company owned by Enriquez Negreira, between 2001 and 2018.

They began their investigation in May 2022, when tax inspectors alerted them to alleged irregularities in DASNIL’s financial records. On Friday, prosecutors put a figure on the total value of these payments: over €7.3million (£6.4m; $7.8m) was paid by Barca to DASNIL, and a second company owned by Enriquez Negreira, NILSAT.

Barcelona, as a legal entity, have now been charged with the crime of ‘continued corruption in business’.

The Spanish law relating to this crime was established in 2010. Since 2015, it has included a specific section targeting corruption in sport when it is suspected an attempt has been made to “pre-determine or alter in a deliberate and fraudulent manner the result of a match or competition”.

‘Continued’ corruption means the crime is believed to have taken place over a sustained period rather than being a one-off. This means the potential punishments are bigger, and can include up to four years in prison for individuals, or professional disqualification and fines for groups or enterprises.

In documents presented to a Barcelona court on Friday, prosecutors said: “FC Barcelona reached and maintained a strictly confidential verbal agreement with Enriquez Negreira so that, in his capacity as vice-president of the CTA (Spanish football’s referee’s committee) and in exchange for money, he would carry out actions tending to favour Barcelona in the decision making of referees in the matches played by the club.”

Prosecutors have also charged parties in this case with false administration and falsifying a commercial document, with two former officials from Bartomeu’s time as Barca president also charged: Oscar Grau and Albert Soler. Grau and Soler have also been approached for comment by The Athletic.

The Barcelona-Negreira scandal is only deepening — here’s what you need to know

In terms of other sporting punishments, La Liga has already said it cannot investigate because the case relates to events that took place more than three years ago.

“It’s not possible for there to be any sportive punishment from our side,” La Liga president Javier Tebas said when news of the scandal broke in February. “It’s been five years since those payments stopped and these kinds of breaches are time-barred in our rulebook three years after taking place.”

Both the Spanish FA and Spain’s High Council for Sports, a governmental body, have previously told The Athletic they will respect the legal process before considering any action of their own.

UEFA told The Athletic it has no comment to make. Unlike La Liga, European football’s governing body would have the power to bring sporting sanctions as any offence would not be time-barred under its rules.

Barca have said they have launched their own investigation, in which they have involved their compliance department and also an external law firm.

What was Enriquez Negreira paid for?
There still remains much doubt over the exact nature of the services Enriquez Negreira provided to Barca.

Speaking to the regional Catalonia branch of Cadena Ser, the media outlet that first broke the news of the scandal in mid-February, Enriquez Negreira said no documentation of his work existed because it was always conducted verbally. He said such work included giving advice on how players should behave with different referees.

Bartomeu, speaking with The Athletic in February, claimed to have only dealt with Enriquez Negreira’s son, Javier, over payments made to DASNIL.

He claimed not to have been aware that Enriquez Negreira himself was “involved in the company” until later on. He said it was Negreira’s son who supplied the “technical reports” on refereeing Barca paid for and that he “completed them with great professionalism”.

Negreira’s son has said the reports he was paid for have been provided to prosecutors.

Bartomeu also said payments were stopped in 2018 “to reduce our expenses”, adding: “The sports department of the club notified me we would part ways with this company and start assuming this job internally.”

However, Ernesto Valverde, the current Athletic Bilbao manager who was in charge at Barca from 2017 to 2020, said he “did not have a clue” about the work DASNIL was paid for. And sources close to Pep Guardiola, who wished to remain anonymous when speaking to The Athletic, said the former Barca boss (2008-2012) did not know anything about reports provided by Enriquez Negreira or his son.

Perhaps the most illuminating comment to have emerged so far is the testimony given by Enriquez Negreira himself to Spain’s tax authorities, reported in Spanish media, in which he said Barcelona had paid him “to make sure no refereeing decisions were made against them, which is to say, for everything to be neutral”.

Links between football clubs and referees are not uncommon in Spain. Carlos Megia Davila, a referee with 219 La Liga games under his belt, has worked, entirely legitimately, for Real Madrid’s Institutional Relations department since retiring in 2009.

Manuel Mejuto Gonzalez, who refereed 262 games in the Spanish top flight, is now part of Getafe’s first-team structure, again working entirely legitimately.

But Enriquez Negreira’s relationship with Barca is the only case where payments were made by a club to an individual still working for the Spanish FA and in a position of real influence.

Speaking on Tuesday, current Barca president Joan Laporta said: “We plan to do a press conference in the future to speak about the case. For now, we want to make clear Barcelona has not bought off referees and it has never been the intention. That’s a categorical no.”

Last week, a separate, individual criminal complaint was filed against Enriquez Negreira and his son by Spanish VAR official Javier Estrada Fernandez. This meant the public prosecutors were forced to close their case and reach a decision on whether or not to bring charges.

Estrada Fernandez’s complaint caused some unrest among the Spanish referees’ group. They were expecting a unified and organised action over the whole investigation and this new complaint has been seen as an individual move without the consent of the rest of the officials.

Who is Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira?
Enriquez Negreira, born in Barcelona in September 1945, made his debut as a referee in Spain’s top flight in the 1979-80 season. He became vice-president of the Spanish FA’s technical committee of referees (CTA) in 1994.

Prosecutors on Friday described the CTA as overseeing “the designation of referees for each match of official Spanish competitions”. They said Enriquez Negreira would have been involved in “evaluations” leading to the “promotion and demotion of referees, as well as the proposal of candidates for international referees”.

Eduardo Iturralde Gonzalez was a Spanish top-flight referee for 17 years before retiring and his time coincided with Enriquez Negreira’s position as vice president of the referees’ committee.

In February he told The Athletic: “From my personal experience, Negreira was not a person who had a bond with the match officials. I only met him at the camps the FA set up for referees throughout the season. Now all the referees meet once a week. Back in the day, they set up a big congregation before the season, then once every three months to assess our performances.

“Negreira was there, but at most you would see him when you crossed paths in the hotel corridor. He was not at all involved in the daily issues of our professional life.

“He had more of an institutional role. The referee’s committee has always followed a pretty presidential model: there was one main chief who surrounded himself with his closest circle. Negreira was one of those, but he did not engage with referees.

“The only thing we want now is to have some light cast over this dark case. All the referees want to clear everything up and expect a broader investigation. From the 20 La Liga referees from my generation, I have spoken with 18 of them. We all are furious.”

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