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fine messi Implications of ‘Barcagate’ edges the debt-ridden Catalan giants even closer to brink

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Mossos d'Esquadra police officers enter the offices of FC Barcelona yesterday. Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters

Mossos d'Esquadra police officers enter the offices of FC Barcelona yesterday. Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters

Mossos d'Esquadra police officers enter the offices of FC Barcelona yesterday. Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters

Debt-ridden Barcelona have been plunged deeper into turmoil by a police raid connected to an alleged third-party, social-media smear campaigns against high-profile players. Here we explore the key questions and potential implications of ‘Barcagate’ – the latest crisis to threaten a European football giant edging closer to the brink.

What’s happened?

Prominent current and former executives of the club had been taken into custody by Catalan police after officers launched investigations into the team 12 months ago. In February last year, Radio station SER Catalunya claimed the club hired an online analytics firm to produce disparaging social media posts aimed at its own players such as Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique.

It was alleged the company, I3 Ventures, had been appointed to protect president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, against those who disagreed with his vision for the club.

The saga has been compared to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. However, Barcelona denied any wrongdoing with I3 Ventures, which is said to help “create opinion” on social media accounts.

Who is implicated?

Bartomeu, who resigned in October before he was to face a vote of no confidence, Oscar Grau, the club’s chief executive, and Roman Gomez Ponti, its head of legal services, are reportedly in custody. The president’s resignation came as one of the
most-lauded teams in modern football history headed into a tailspin last season.

A humiliating 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich that eliminated the club from last season’s Champions League and a public falling out with Lionel Messi hastened his downfall. The former president, who ran the club for six years, was said to have been initially held at his home. Barcelona have again denied any wrongdoing, having hired a consultant, PWC, to complete an audit of its relationship with I3 Ventures.

Why now?

The raid comes days before more than 140,000 Barcelona members will elect Bartomeu’s successor. Bartomeu said recently that he had no idea the company was involved in spreading negative content targeting Barcelona players. Another factor that may have hastened police involvement is that the club is in the process of opening up its books during emergency talks taking place with the banks over loans to solve immediate financial turmoil. The club’s accounts are more perilous than at any point in its history, despite record TV rights money over the last decade. Latest financial statements show Barca owed more than around €1.04 billion to lenders, other clubs and the taxman.

Does the latest saga make Lionel Messi more likely to leave?

The chaos is damaging for the club’s hopes of keeping the world’s best player, but it may not be the deciding factor. Messi’s bombshell announcement that he wanted to leave last summer was largely down to a fallout with the club’s hierarchy.

The departure of Bartomeu in October initially helped sweeten soured relations.

It is Messi’s €700m release clause expiring at the end of this season at a club in the financial mire that is likely to remain the ultimate deciding element in deciding his future.

What have Barcelona said about the current inquiry?

The club is cooperating with inquiries. “Regarding the entry and search by the Catalan Police force this morning at the Camp Nou offices by order of the Instructing Court number 13 in Barcelona, which is in charge of the case relating to the contacting of monitoring services on social networks, FC Barcelona have offered up their full collaboration to the legal and police authorities to help make clear facts which are subject to investigation,” a statement said.

“The information and documentation requested by the judicial police force relate strictly to the facts relative to this case. FC Barcelona express its utmost respect for the judicial process in place and for the principle of presumed innocence for the people affected within the remit of this investigation.”

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