Ask anyone in the world who knows anything about football, and they will recognize the name of FC Barcelona. Barça, which produced such prodigious talents as Johan Cruyff and Lionel Messi, and whose incarnation between 2008 and 2012 is considered by many to be the greatest football team of all time, has consistently been one of the most popular and beloved clubs in the world. But after these years of glory, the club has fallen on difficult times.
Beginning in the late 2010s, Barça found itself in financial trouble after several seasons of poor recruitment decisions, mismanagement and overspending on players, culminating in the club facing bankruptcy in October 2020. Then, in 2021, now ex-Barça President Bartomeu and other club board members were arrested for their roles in “Barcagate,” after investigations found that Bartomeu and others paid public relations company I3 Ventures to protect Bartomeu’s image while defaming current and former players on social media. The club faced further troubles after the new president Laporta led the failed venture to create the breakaway European Super League, and Messi tearfully departed for PSG on a free transfer after Barça announced that the club could not afford to give him a new contract.
During the summer 2022 transfer window, the club managed to utilize its economic levers—the mechanisms related to partial sale of merchandising and television rights to clean up debt—to avoid bankruptcy and even sign players such as star striker Robert Lewandowski. After one of the worst seasons on record, it seemed that this season, things were finally looking up for the club: with a 2-1 win over rival Real Madrid during Sunday’s Clásico, Barça currently enjoys a 12-point lead in La Liga, meaning that the club is all but guaranteed to win the league. But this was not to be the case.
In February, news broke that the club has been charged with “continued corruption in business” over €7.3 million in payments made to Enriquez Negreira, the former vice president of the Technical Committee of Referees, between 2001 and 2018. Prosecutors found that Barça, and former presidents Sandro Rosell and Josep Bartomeu made the payments to DASNIL 95 and NILSAT, two companies owned by Negreira. Two other club officials have been charged with false administration and falsifying a commercial document.
Exactly what Negreira did for Barça in exchange for the payments remains unclear. Prosecutors claim that Negreira favored Barça in refereeing decisions and in match results. Negreira claims that his work included giving advice to players and supplying technical reports on referees that is used by the club’s coaching staff, but that he never influenced any matches or favored Barça in any refereeing decisions.
Because the payments stopped over five years ago, La Liga is unable to investigate due to the statute of limitations which specifies investigations within three years, and there will not be any sporting punishments from the league. Investigations by the Royal Spanish Football Federation and Spain’s High Council for Sports may be forthcoming, but only after the current legal proceedings play out.
However, UEFA recently released a statement that the governing body has appointed Ethics and Disciplinary Inspectors to conduct their own investigation over a potential violation of UEFA regulations in connection with the Negreira case. Since the statute of limitations does not apply for UEFA, the governing body could bring sporting sanctions against the club which could take the form of “a warning, reprimand and fine to disqualification from competitions in progress and/or exclusion from future competitions and withdrawal of a title or an award.” The sanctions could even include a one-season ban from the Champions League, which Barça fears because of the club’s continued support for the European Super League; a ban would have massive financial consequences for a club already suffering from financial problems and which had finally returned to the top of La Liga after four seasons.
Barça President Laporta has confirmed that there were payments made, but maintains that Negreira was an advisor, continues denying wrongdoing, and further questions the motivations of the scandal coming out at a time when Barça is finally performing well. While a date has not been set yet for Laporta’s press conference, Barça has now gone on the offensive; the club filed five defamation lawsuits against journalists and media, with more upcoming, in an effort to defend the club’s reputation. The club also set up an email address where members can send information they believe could be the basis of a lawsuit.
The legal proceedings in the Negreira case are likely to continue for some time, and the longer the case drags out, the more questions and speculation will arise and continue to overshadow Barça’s excellent performance this season. Moving forward, Laporta needs to provide in depth explanations for the payments to Negreira, and the club needs to be transparent and cooperate fully with all investigations.
 Jimmy Burns, Is Barcelona the Greatest Soccer Team Ever?, Newsweek (June 3, 2011), https://www.newsweek.com/barcelona-greatest-soccer-team-ever-67901 [https://web.archive.org/web/20230327044931/https://www.newsweek.com/barcelona-greatest-soccer-team-ever-67901] [https://perma.cc/85LK-6LLS].
 FC Barcelona the Most Engaging Sports Brand in the World on the Top Three Social Networks for Third Consecutive Season, FC Barcelona (Aug. 1, 2020) https://www.fcbarcelona.com/en/club/news/1746331/fc-barcelona-the-most-engaging-sports-brand-in-the-world-on-the-top-three-social-networks-for-third-consecutive-season [https://web.archive.org/web/20230327045110/https://www.fcbarcelona.com/en/club/news/1746331/fc-barcelona-the-most-engaging-sports-brand-in-the-world-on-the-top-three-social-networks-for-third-consecutive-season.] [https://perma.cc/6H9K-SM6K].
 Mudeet Arora, Timeline: How FC Barcelona Got into Their Current Financial Mess, Khel Now (Aug. 24, 2022), https://khelnow.com/football/how-fc-barcelona-got-into-current-financial-mess-timeline [https://web.archive.org/web/20230327045507/https://khelnow.com/football/how-fc-barcelona-got-into-current-financial-mess-timeline] [https://perma.cc/DK73-VM82].
 What is ‘Barcagate’? Barcelona Scandal Explained, Goal (Mar. 1, 2021), https://www.goal.com/en-us/news/what-is-barcagate-barcelona-scandal-explained/fhhqmglmzbd1v0u7c1ywm57f [https://web.archive.org/web/20230327045714/https://www.goal.com/en-us/news/what-is-barcagate-barcelona-scandal-explained/fhhqmglmzbd1v0u7c1ywm57f] [https://perma.cc/RHZ3-J2JV].
 Arora, supra note 3.
 Rob Train, What Are Barcelona’s Economic “Levers” and how Do They Work?, AS (July 23, 2022), https://en.as.com/soccer/what-are-barcelonas-economic-levers-and-how-do-they-work-n/ [https://web.archive.org/web/20230327045956/https://en.as.com/soccer/what-are-barcelonas-economic-levers-and-how-do-they-work-n/] [https://perma.cc/CB9S-9PQM].
 Pol Ballús & Laia Cervelló Herrero, Barcelona Charged with Corruption over Payments To Former Referees Chief, Athletic (Mar. 10, 2023), https://theathletic.com/4290919/2023/03/10/barcelona-negreira-corruption/ [https://web.archive.org/web/20230327050056/https://theathletic.com/4290919/2023/03/10/barcelona-negreira-corruption/] [https://perma.cc/JV3T-QKR4].
 Negreira Case: Barcelona Nearing LaLiga Title After Real Madrid Win but Referee Payments Scandal Overshadows Success, Skysports (Mar. 23, 2023), https://www.skysports.com/football/news/11833/12833219/negreira-case-barcelona-nearing-laliga-title-after-real-madrid-win-but-referee-payments-scandal-overshadows-success [https://web.archive.org/web/20230327050305/https://www.skysports.com/football/news/11833/12833219/negreira-case-barcelona-nearing-laliga-title-after-real-madrid-win-but-referee-payments-scandal-overshadows-success] [https://perma.cc/2XM4-VZRH].
 Ballús & Herrero, supra note 7.
 Ballús & Herrero, supra note 7.
 Tom Sanderson, FC Barcelona Face and Fear Champions League Exclusion From UEFA Over Referee Payments Scandal – Reports, Forbes (Mar. 9, 2023), https://www.forbes.com/sites/tomsanderson/2023/03/09/fc-barcelona-face-champions-league-exclusion-from-uefa-over-referee-payments-scandalreports/?sh=6752ffda4948 [https://web.archive.org/web/20230327050507/https://connatix-d.openx.net/v/1.0/av?auid=539947468&schain=1.0,1!connatix.com,679698455578581,1,,,,&url=www.forbes.com%2Fsites%2Ftomsanderson%2F2023%2F03%2F09%2Ffc-barcelona-face-champions-league-exclusion-fr&cb=22dedc05-ebfd-4aaa-bc98-748b64f44651&vwd=526&vht=296&gdpr=0&gdpr_consent=undefined&us_privacy=] [https://perma.cc/546R-FZ9P] (Participation in the Champions League generates the most revenue out of the major European competitions, and missing out on the TV, prize and ticket money would be devastating).
 Negreira case, supra note 9.
 Barcelona Have Filed Five Lawsuits Against Journalists in the ‘Negreira Case’, Sport.es (Mar. 22, 2023), https://www.sport.es/en/news/barca/barcelona-have-filed-five-lawsuits-against-journalists-in-the-negreira-case-85013329 [https://web.archive.org/web/20230327050931/https://www.sport.es/en/news/barca/barcelona-have-filed-five-lawsuits-against-journalists-in-the-negreira-case-85013329] [https://perma.cc/LP4C-QC25].