Barcelona charged with bribery in referee corruption scandal – and could face ban from football

According to FC Barcelona sources, the Camp Nou works are further along than expected
Barcelona's Nou Camp stadium was knocked down over the summer to be rebuilt as the Espai Barca complex, but doubts are growing over the project - Getty Images/Joan Valls

Barcelona face a bribery case in the Spanish courts over a refereeing scandal that could potentially lead to the club being banned from football, at a time when their finances are at their most precarious and the Nou Camp has been demolished.

The last obstacle to a jury trial for Barcelona’s alleged illegal payments to José María Enríquez Negreira, the former vice-president of the Spanish refereeing committee, was removed on Thursday by a judge who had examined the public prosecutor’s case against the club and key individuals.

Judge Joaquin Aguirre Lopez ruled that the trial would go ahead over the payments of €7.7 million to Negreira between 2001 and 2018, for what the club claim were “technical reports” on referees. The club themselves have been named among the defendants as well as former presidents Josep Maria Bartomeu, Sandro Rosell and Negreira’s son Javier Enríquez.

If found guilty, the sentences for the individuals could be between three and six years in prison. Barcelona themselves could be suspended from trading as a professional football club, which would likely plunge the 124-year-old member-owned entity into bankruptcy.

In Aguirre Lopez’s remarks on the case he said that he considered José María Enríquez Negreira to have been a public servant at the time of the alleged offences, which makes the charge of bribery more serious. The judge also said that he believed the case demonstrated the club obtained advantages from referees. It will be for a jury, nine people under Spanish law, to decide.

Barcelona are rebuilding the Nou Camp, which was knocked down over the summer to make way for the Espai Barca complex, although there have been suggestions in the Spanish media of nervousness among the 20 or so investors in the €1.5 billion (£1.3 billion) project. While none have spoken publicly about their concerns over the prospect of a guilty verdict for the club in the Negreira trial, the collapse of the new stadium financing would leave Barcelona without a home of their own.

In addition to the debt assumed to build the stadium, there is around a further €1.5 billion owed to creditors that has been accumulated over recent presidencies. That includes the sale of some €700 million worth of future income streams last summer that funded the building of the team that won the league title under Xavi Hernandez last season.

Although the club’s exact liabilities are not known it is understood that the United States investment bank Goldman Sachs is Barcelona’s biggest creditor. While president Joan Laporta is the elected leader of the club it is clear that the creditors are now effectively in charge.

Despite towering liabilities, and the threat of the court case, Laporta and his board decided to push ahead with the stadium demolition. They also continued to sign players in the last window, albeit chiefly loans and free agents including Ilkay Gundogan, formerly of Manchester City.

The club also face a Uefa investigation over the Negreira case. Uefa is injuncted by Spanish courts from disciplining Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus over the European Super League dispute. It means Uefa may wait until the Spanish court case has concluded until it reaches judgment. Juventus have, nevertheless, already accepted their Uefa punishment of a one-year ban.

It has been reported in Spain this week that Alex Barbany, the managing director of Espai Barca, has quit the project. Barcelona and all the individuals charged deny any wrongdoing over the Negreira case.

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