Given Barcelona’s current struggles on the field, it has been easy to forget that the club is in shambles behind the scenes. After all, Champions League drubbings tend to overshadow boardroom election campaigns. Of course, the disasters at the upper levels of the club are a major factor in the decline of the on-field product, so remembering the follies of the higher-ups is essential to understanding the team’s steady fall from grace. Which brings us to Barçagate, the stupidly named scandal currently blasting its way into the news cycle.
On Monday, former Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu was arrested, alongside three others: Bartomeu’s former chief of staff Jaume Masferrer, current Barcelona CEO Óscar Grau, and head of legal services Román Gómez Ponti. Police took the four men into custody over a possible misuse of Barcelona funds. If the arrest of the most recent president, CEO, and chief lawyer of one of the biggest sporting institutions on the planet doesn’t seem scandalous enough, the sordid details of the affair make it even crazier.
To fully understand what’s going on, we first need to step back to February of last year, when Barçagate first broke. The scandal was first revealed thanks to a legal complaint initiated by a Barcelona fan group, and then later investigated by Cadena SER in February of 2020. At the heart of the matter was I3 Ventures, a PR company that analyzes social media sentiment for companies. The club had hired the firm to monitor and build up the club’s social media presence.
That in itself is not out of the ordinary. Every club in Europe probably has some apparatus for figuring out how its fans feel about everything from performances to transfers to the general comings and goings of the club. The headline-generating aspect, however, was the allegation that I3 Ventures had led a social media campaign to disparage figures in and around the club in order to boost Bartomeu’s standing with the fanbase. This list of targets, all blasted at by social media accounts owned by I3 Ventures, included current players at the club, like Lionel Messi and Gerard Piqué, former players like Xavi, and potential rivals in the then-upcoming presidential elections like Víctor Font and Agustí Benedito.
Naturally, news of Barcelona paying a PR company to shit on some of the club’s biggest icons, all to defend the honor of its beleaguered president, landed like a bombshell. The story was totally bizarre—so bizarre that, when the club commissioned an independent investigation into the claim, which concluded that Barça’s contract with I3 Ventures did not include anything about the mud-slinging and was fair market value for the services rendered, it was not hard to believe Bartomeu really didn’t have anything to do with the social media attacks. The club did temporarily suspend Masferrer in April of last year because of the deal, and a handful of board members resigned in anger about the secretive nature of Bartomeu’s handling of the I3 Ventures contract, but in spite of its juicy beginnings, Barçagate more or less fizzled out without many major ramifications.
That wouldn’t prove the end of the saga, though. The Catalan police began investigating the claims on its own after news first broke, which culminated in Monday’s arrests. And the version of events the police claim to have discovered about Barçagate is even wilder than the original.
While it is not clear whether Bartomeu or his underlings knew specifically about I3 Ventures’ mud-slinging efforts, police do allege that the contract with I3 Ventures was intended to bolster Bartomeu’s reputation more than the club’s as a whole. Not only that, the authorities’ story, as laid out by La Vanguadia, goes that the services Bartomeu actually signed I3 Ventures to perform was to take the demographic information of all of Barcelona’s voting members, which would be supplied by Bartomeu, and compile an ideological profile of each of them. (NB: Unlike most big European clubs, Barcelona doesn’t have a single owner, and instead is co-owned by a body of voting members, called socios. These socios, who number north of 140,000 and whose ranks basically anyone can join, vote to elect the club’s president, and have various other powers, like calling the referendum that forced Bartomeu to resign from his post as president in October 2020.) The aim of I3 Ventures’ efforts was to be able to assess, predict, and presumably manipulate the public opinion of the socios via media propaganda, all to tighten Bartomeu’s grip on power.
According to documents obtained by El Pais, it gets even better. Originally, I3 Ventures charged the club between €800,000 and €1 million for its services, but once it got into the private records, it came up with an incredible fact: Social media opinion of Bartomeu was 86 percent negative. The company then said it would take a lot more work to turn this perception around, and thus increased its original quote to up to €2.3 million. Bartomeu agreed to this, and consummated the deal with some creative, and potentially illegal, accounting.
In order to keep the costs of the deal hidden from the rest of the board, Bartomeu divvied up the payments into smaller chunks. This was because Bartomeu had discretionary powers to sign contracts of up to €200,000 without needing to get board permission. In addition to paying I3 Ventures in chunks rather than in total, the police found evidence that I3 Ventures billed the club via third-party companies that were also owned by I3 Ventures’ owner, so as to more thoroughly disguise the operation. Police are also looking into whether any of the arrested Barcelona officials personally benefited financially from the contracts through kickbacks and the like. Though the most sensational details of this story are about Bartomeu essentially building his own NSA and using it to trash those who might threaten his power, the actual criminality comes from the shady accounting practices.
One thing to note here is that the club itself is not accused of any wrongdoing. In fact, police view the organization as the victim in the case, and is holding the four men responsible for the misappropriation of club funds, as well as possible corruption. Given that Bartomeu and Masferrer are both no longer working at the club following their October resignations, it seems that there will not be much blowback on Barcelona proper. Instead, this appears to be the story of Bartomeu’s presidency wrapped up in one tidy package: an insecure and corrupt man using the powers he held onto for dear life to improve his own standing, at the expense of the club he was supposed to serve.