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Barcelona crisis: Wantaway Messi; Bartomeu arrested; financial chaos; no trophies

The drama at Barcelona continued on Monday with the arrest of the club’s former president, Josep Maria Bartomeu. Following police raids at five locations across the city to seize evidence and documentation, including at Camp Nou, Bartomeu was one of four men detained, facing allegations of misuse of funds and corruption. Bartomeu’s adviser, Jaume Masferrer, Barca CEO Oscar Grau and the club’s head of legal services, Roman Gomez Ponti, were also arrested as part of an investigation that was opened last year into the “Barcagate” social media scandal.

It’s the latest twist in a saga that began in early 2020 when it was revealed Barca had paid a company, I3 Ventures, to smear current and former players, including Gerard Pique and Lionel Messi, as well as club presidential candidates such as Joan Laporta and Victor Font. However, it’s the murky financial details — which are not yet completely clear — involving the payments to I3 Ventures, rather than the negative propaganda, that led to the raids across the Catalan city this week.

With a Copa del Rey semifinal second leg to come against Sevilla on Wednesday and a new president set to be elected on Sunday, Barca will hope the arrests prove the closing chapter to what has been a truly chaotic 14 months both on and off the pitch.

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During that time, Barcelona have been through three managers, gone trophy-less for the first time since 2007-08, been humiliated 8-2 by Bayern Munich in the Champions League, battled with Messi over his future and forced striker Luis Suarez out of the club through the back door. (He’s now thriving as the top scorer for Atletico Madrid, who are leading La Liga.)

The prospect of a second trophy-less season in a row is on the cards, too, if they can’t overturn a 2-0 deficit against Sevilla in the cup at Camp Nou this week. In La Liga, they’re five points behind leaders Atletico and have played a game more. Following their worst start to a league campaign in 30 years, at their pace of 2.15 points per game they’re on track for around 80 points, which would represent their lowest tally since that trophy-less campaign under Frank Rijkaard in 2007-08.

The disappointing performances on the pitch are a consequence of mismanagement off of it. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the club’s financial crisis, and gross debt has risen to nearly €1.2 billion, with net debt standing at €488 million. There have been rows between the players and the board over wage reductions. The board have fought among themselves, too. Directors have quit. The president, Bartomeu, stepped down in October, although his resignation was unrelated to Barcagate. Barca, rudderless for the last four months, will finally elect his successor this weekend.

“I knew Barcagate would be the beginning of the end from the very first minute,” Emili Rousaud, who resigned as vice president last April due to discrepancies with Bartomeu, said on Monday.

Monday’s events were perhaps the natural culmination of what has been a tumultuous year in Barca’s history. They have leaped from one self-inflicted mess to another, the pandemic exposing cracks that had been covered up for years, although they first began to appear when manager Ernesto Valverde was sacked.

Here’s how the saga unfolded, culminating in the arrests and police raids this week.

January 2020

A documentary charting Barca’s destruction since 2020 would be pure box office, starting with the dismissal of Valverde after the Spanish Supercopa defeat to Atletico in Saudi Arabia. Hindsight suggests Valverde, who guided Barca to back-to-back La Liga titles and left them top of the league, was perhaps the only one holding things together.

Inside story: How Barca fired Valverde, signed Setien

The scramble to replace him was played out through media leaks from the club and quickly became a shambles, as a series of candidates rejected the offer. Club legend Xavi Hernandez said “no.” Ronald Koeman, who would later take the job, said “not now.” Backup option Quique Setien eventually came in, but within the month Barca had lost to Valencia in the league and been knocked out of the cup by Athletic Bilbao.

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Barcelona face a first-leg deficit in the Copa del Rey and the election of a new president in the wake of the arrest of former president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

February

Valverde’s exit also provided the backdrop to a row between Messi and former sporting director Eric Abidal. Abidal said some of the players had not been working hard enough and were, in part, to blame for the coach being fired. Messi didn’t like that and bit back at his former teammate on Instagram.

“Name names if you’ve got something to say and take responsibility for your own actions [sacking Valverde],” he snapped.

A week later, Spanish radio station Cadena Ser first revealed the details of the case that has become known as “Barcagate.” At first, it seemed a simple case of Bartomeu and his board contracting a third-party company to smear people not aligned with him on social media.

“It’s shocking that, with the club’s money, the board of directors have targeted their own members, first-team players, Catalan social entities and media,” Font said at the time.

Bartomeu quickly denied any involvement with the social media accounts implicated and rescinded the club’s contract with I3 Ventures, the company that had the contract to monitor social networks for the club. The club also threatened to take legal action against Cadena Ser, a threat they haven’t yet formally pursued.

March

After a Clasico defeat to Real Madrid, the coronavirus pandemic shut down football and the board and the players faced off over pay cuts. Once again, these wage negotiations were played out in the media, with the board leaking that the players weren’t prepared to adjust their salaries. Barca’s players, meanwhile, through a statement said they were “surprised some people at the club want to put us under so much pressure” when they were always happy to play a role in helping the club cut costs.

The whole first-team squad eventually agreed to a 70% wage cut while football was halted and also pledged to make an additional contribution so that none of the non-sporting staff’s earnings would be reduced for as long as Spain remained in a state of emergency.

April

By this stage, the club’s executive board were fighting among themselves as well as with the players. Bartomeu asked four directors to resign following disagreements over issues related to Barcagate. In the end, six resigned and one of them — Rousaud — alleged “someone’s had their hand in the till” as it became clear for the first time the scandal could be more than just a few subtle smear campaigns.

On April 21, a group of eight club members, under the name “Dignitat Blaugrana,” reported Bartomeu and his board to the police for misuse of funds and corruption as part of the Barcagate affair.

June

Football returned, providing a distraction from the club’s off-pitch issues, although that respite was fleeting as Setien’s team began to mirror the turmoil in the boardroom. Dropped points, division between the players and the coaching staff and Real Madrid’s impeccable form saw the league title slip away. Barcelona finished second, five points behind their rivals.

August

Barcelona’s nadir was the historic and humiliating 8-2 defeat to Bayern in the Champions League quarterfinal. The competition was reformatted to a single-game elimination in a “bubble” setting, but Barcelona couldn’t keep up with the Bundesliga giants, falling behind 1-0 after 4 minutes and then 4-1 after 31 minutes.

Setien was sacked after that game — his fate had already been sealed when Madrid won the league in July, sources told ESPN — but even that was mishandled. He said in December that he still hasn’t been paid what he’s owed by the club and will take them to court.

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Alejandro Moreno says Ronald Koeman has sent a clear message about Antoine Griezmann’s role at Barcelona.

Koeman replaced him, Barca’s third coach in eight months, but his appointment was overshadowed by Messi, the club’s record scorer and one of the game’s all-time greats, trying to force a move out of the club after 20 years of loyal, storied service. Messi sent the club a “burofax” — a service in Spain for sending documents where it is necessary to prove that the document was delivered and also the contents of that document — informing them of his intention to leave for free, per a clause in his contract. Bartomeu and the club fought against the clause and Messi eventually backed down, saying he was not willing to take the “club of my life” to court.

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Messi, 34 in June, announced he would stay for the final year of his contract — he could still leave for nothing in June, when his deal expires — in an interview with Goal, calling Bartomeu a liar and accusing the board of “juggling and plugging gaps” for years.

September

While Barca wanted Messi to stay, they tried to force others out. Ivan Rakitic (Sevilla) and Arturo Vidal (Inter Milan) left for little return. Suarez left for a direct rival, Atletico. “You didn’t deserve for them to kick you out like they did,” Messi wrote on Instagram when Suarez’s move was confirmed. “But the truth is that at this point, nothing surprises me.”

October

The reasons behind the club’s desperation to shed veteran players on big wages soon became clear. The most recent accounts, dated October 2020, revealed €488 million of net debt and gross debt of almost €1.2 billion. La Liga’s latest salary caps revealed that Barca need to cut last season’s €671m wage bill down to €347m or they risk falling foul of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, as years of overspending on signings (Ousmane Dembele €145m, Philippe Coutinho €160m, Antoine Griezmann €120m) and overpaying players has finally caught up.

It wasn’t the treatment of Suarez or the financial problems that provoked the end of Bartomeu, though, but Messi’s push to leave. On the back of the Argentine’s burofax, club member Jordi Farre launched a motion of no confidence against Bartomeu. The motion received over 20,000 signatures from fellow members — the club have around 141,000 members in total — meeting the threshold for a referendum on Bartomeu’s future.

However, Bartomeu resigned on Oct. 27 before it got that far, claiming it would be irresponsible to hold a referendum during a pandemic. He went out taking swings at the Catalan government for not postponing it on health grounds, and revealed upon exiting the club that he had been holding talks with the game’s biggest clubs regarding a European Super League.

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ESPN FC’s Alejandro Moreno assesses the chance for European success for football’s two biggest stars.

January 2021

A replacement should have been elected within 90 days, per the club’s statutes, but the original date of Jan. 24 was pushed back due to restrictions on movement in Catalonia that made an in-person vote impossible. Finally, on March 7, either Laporta, Font or Toni Freixa will replace Bartomeu. They were the only three from nine candidates to obtain the 2,257 signatures needed to make it to polling day.

Laporta, the club’s president between 2003 and 2010, is the favourite, with Font expected to be his closest challenger.

This week and beyond

At first glance, Barcagate seemed to be a simple case of Bartomeu wanting to improve his image by attacking his critics, but the real exposé, via investigations carried out by journalists, the police and internally over the last year, is financial irregularity.

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I3 Ventures, registered in South America, had a contract with Barcelona for “monitoring services on social networks,” according to the club. It’s alleged that Barca paid them an inflated price — more than €1m — for that service, and there are also questions about why they wouldn’t have used a local company that would have charged far less. The biggest concern is that a total of six payments to I3 Ventures all came up just under €200,000, as anything higher than that in a lump sum would have to be approved by the board. There are also allegations the club had similar contracts and payment structures set up with other companies.

“We have maximum respect for the police’s actions and also for the presumption of innocence,” said Laporta, the former Barca president who hopes to succeed Bartomeu when Barca members vote on Sunday. “But we deeply regret what’s happened because it hugely damages the club’s image and reputation.”

Bartomeu will have to return to court to defend himself, although he appeared relaxed when he was freed on Tuesday, stopping to pose for selfies with supporters. Beyond the damage to their reputation, Barca won’t be charged or face any punishment for the Barcagate scandal; the judge has listed them as an “affected party.”

Meanwhile, Barca are slowly improving under Koeman. They’re unbeaten in 15 games in the league and will be confident of producing a comeback against Sevilla after beating them on Saturday in La Liga. If they manage that, the week could end with a cup final, a new president and a fresh start. Although if the last 14 months have taught us anything, it’s that you can never be sure when you’ve hit rock bottom.

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