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Barcelona Insists There’s Nothing Weird About Paying A Referee $1.3 Million

Fans are seen waving flags inside the stadium as they await the unveiling of new FC Barcelona Head Coach Xavi Hernandez during a press conference at Camp Nou on November 08, 2021 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
David Ramos/Getty Images

When a story begins, "It sounds really bad," you know you're on to something, no matter the subject. So when The Athletic's Pol Ballus began his tale of alleged payments from Barcelona FC to the vice-president of Spain's refereeing committee, you could actually taste the juice to come even without licking your laptop screen.

I mean, we turn purple over a touch foul late in a big football game. We'd jam our faces into a gigantic shredder if we ever got an actual refereeing scandal. But soccer does everything bigger and better, and if the scandal isn't about teams playing fast and loose with the sport's version of a salary cap—Italian power Juventus is being penalized 15 standings points, and Manchester City is facing similar or worse punishments for roughly the same thing—it's about payoffs, or the accusations of same. So yeah, give us that. Give us all you've got.

The skeleton of the story is that Spanish prosecutors are investigating payments of approximately $1.3 million made to a company owned by former La Liga referee Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira, who was at the time (2016-18) the vice president of the league's refereeing committee. And that those payments magically stopped when his term with the league ended.

The important question, as it usually is in these matters, is how eager prosecutors are to take on a powerful organization, but the hint that Barca was paying off the referees' association is more than just a suggestion. It feels, and not just to our pal Ballus, like this is a particularly brazen exercise of influence peddling being suggested here, and nothing suggests fire to go with the smoke quite like Barca president Joan Laporta saying, "I want to make it very clear ... It’s not a coincidence that this information has come out now. Information like this when things are going well. It’s not a coincidence." That's not a denial as much as it is a whine.

And without getting into too much turgid detail, we also find hilarious this paragraph from Ballus quoting former Barca president Josep Maria Bartolomeu when asked if such a massive payment is unusual: "Every top club has those kinds of services. €500,000 for referee’s references is too much? I don’t know what other elite clubs pay, to be honest."

Bartolomeu either missed the point of the question, or he acknowledged that lots of teams pay for what is being described as analysis of referees, as opposed to the NFL, whose teams do their own scouting work. If it's just analysis, fine. But it looks hinky as hell, which is why it's fabulous. This is the kind of scandal we need more of here, because it looks so magnificently brassy and reeks so pungently. Frankly, we want it to be true for no better reason than that. In a world powered by corruption, there are only two ways to go—undetectable subtlety, or trousers-down shamelessness.

While nobody thinks this will result in draconian punishments for the Barca team, we still want two things. One, for the Spanish prosecutors to find everything they seek, the case to go to trial and the jury/judge/tribunal to announce the verdict the way the jury in The Producers did—"We find the defendants incredibly guilty."

And two, for the entire courtroom to rise as one and give the convicted a standing ovation as they are led off to whatever passes for country club prisons in Spain. Because there, like here and everywhere, if you're going to go, go big.

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