Barcelona may have won the LaLiga title on Sunday, but their outstanding domestic campaign has been somewhat overshadowed by turmoil off the pitch including deepening financial problems and a refereeing scandal that could drag on for years.
Spanish prosecutors in March filed a complaint over alleged payments Barcelona made from 2001 to 2018 totalling 7.3 million euros ($8 million) to firms owned by former refereeing official Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira. A Barcelona court has agreed to take on the case.
Also in March, European soccer’s governing body UEFA opened its own formal investigation into the club, looking into the same payments.
The club has denied any wrongdoing, saying that it paid an external consultant who supplied it with “technical reports related to professional refereeing”, something many clubs do.
But Enriquez Negreira was the vice-president of the refereeing committee of the Spanish Football Association – one of the highest refereeing officials in the country – from 1993 to 2018, covering the entire period concerned.
However the case may play out it has dealt a massive blow to the club’s image, and could continue to do so as the legal process and UEFA’s separate probe drag on.
And it comes at a time when Barcelona are already facing huge accounting problems related to their massive wage bill, to the COVID-19 pandemic and to the club’s 1.6 billion-euro renovation project.
Restricted by LaLiga’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules, Barca were unable to re-sign club great Lionel Messi, who left as a free agent for Paris St Germain in the summer of 2021.
According to LaLiga, Barca are still about 200 million euros over the cap and remain unable to register new contracts signed months ago with defender Ronald Araujo and midfielder Gavi, key players whose future is in doubt unless the club finds a way to fit them into its budget.
Crashing out of European competition early this season dealt another blow to the club’s finances, which are so fragile the board has pulled several levers including selling stakes in its TV rights and media divisions to try to balance the books.
The club will also leave its iconic but outdated Camp Nou stadium for the next few seasons as it starts its hugely expensive renovation project.
In this season’s budget, Barcelona’s board boldly predicted that the team would reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League, and bring in plenty of related income.
Instead, they crashed out at the group stage of Europe’s top club competition and were then knocked out of the Europa League by Manchester United.
That piled the pressure on coach Xavi Hernández to win the league – another budget prediction – as Barca’s last way to limit the damage to their 2022-23 income.
While the fans will rightly celebrate Barcelona’s romp to the LaLiga title with four games to spare, inside the club’s high offices there is still plenty to worry about.