FC Barcelona president Joan Laporta is defiantly pushing back in the face of widespread criticism amid a referee payment scandal gripping Spanish football.
The Barcelona Prosecutor’s Office told CNN earlier this month that it was investigating Barça over allegations it made $1.5 million in payments over three years to a company owned by a then-leading official with Spain’s referee committee, the CTA.
Spanish radio station Cadena SER reported last week that the club made a series of payments to a company owned by José María Enríquez Negreira between 2016 and 2018. At the time, Enríquez Negreira was serving as the CTA’s vice president.
The CTA is the governing body responsible for deciding which referees and assistants officiate weekly matches in Spain. Barcelona’s final payment was in June 2018, which coincided with Enríquez Negreira’s departure from the CTA, according to Cadena SER.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Laporta echoed the club’s initial statement on the investigation, and said that hiring a consultant for referee reports and scouting is something every club does and was a service the club considered necessary to its success.
Laporta – who also served as Barça president from June 2003 to June 2010 – said an external lawyer and his team were carrying out a series of independent investigations for the club.
He also said Spanish authorities haven’t informed the club it’s the subject of an investigation.
The Barcelona prosecutor’s office confirmed to CNN last week that an investigation was underway but said the proceedings were private.
On Monday, the president of Spain’s top football division LaLiga, Javier Tebas, suggested Laporta should resign if he’s unable to explain why the payments were made, citing what he described as the club’s initial “superficial statement.”
“FC Barcelona did a press release right when the whole scandal broke that made it look like every football club does this. It’s obvious that they don’t. One thing is to hire ex-referees [to do these reports], another is to hire ex-referees who are on the Technical Committee for Referees [CTA], right?
“It wasn’t just three seasons, it was a lot of seasons, also with different leaderships who, theoretically, do not speak to each other. Well, I don’t know. I don’t like it at all.” (translation done by Patrick Sung)
Laporta hit back on Tuesday saying that Tebas – who has previously admitted to being a Real Madrid supporter – has “taken off his mask” as he continues “his obsession with Barça” suggesting the leader of LaLiga is engaging in a destabilization campaign against the club.
CNN has reached out to Barcelona for comment.
Last week, former Barça president Josep Maria Bartomeu told Cadena SER that he discontinued the payments at the heart of the investigation in 2018 – when Enríquez Negreira left the CTA – to reduce costs at the club.
Bartomeu added that payments to the company had been ongoing since at least 2003, the year he first arrived at the club. Enríquez Negreira explained to Cadena SER that he never favored Barça in any decision or refereeing appointment.
When Cadena SER asked about the investigation into the payments, Enríquez Negreira acknowledged working exclusively for Barcelona.
CNN reached out to Enríquez Negreira for comment but did not receive a reply.
LaLiga said it shared details about the case with all of Spain’s topflight teams, aside from two teams.
Meanwhile, José Manuel Franco, president of the High Council of Sport (CSD) in Spain, said in remarks on Tuesday that the CSD will “act with the rightful force when the prosecutor finishes their work,” adding “Any irregular behavior will always have consequences, which is why this is such an important subject.”
On Monday, two LaLiga clubs released statements expressing their alarm over the alleged payments.
Sevilla FC and Barcelona’s crosstown rival, Espanyol, called on authorities to take swift action to deal with a scandal that threatens the reputation of the game.