BARCELONA: Spain’s Clasico is one of the world’s biggest sporting occasions, pitting giants Barcelona and Real Madrid head-to-head, but the build-up to Sunday’s La Liga clash has been overshadowed by “Caso Negreira”.
Barca have been charged with corruption by Spanish prosecutors for payments between 2001 and 2018 to the company of former refereeing chief Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira, totalling around 7.3 million euros ($7.8 million).
The club say they were paying for reports and advice on refereeing but prosecutors have accused the club of seeking to gain favourable decision-making from officials.
Charges were filed last week against Barcelona, former vice president of Spain's refereeing committee (CTA), Negreira, and two former Barcelona presidents, Sandro Rosell and Josep Maria Bartomeu, among others.
Although La Liga leaders Barcelona can virtually clinch the title if they beat second-place Real Madrid on Sunday to move 12 points clear, headlines remain dominated by the Negreira case, with tensions rising around Spain.
In the first round of fixtures after Barcelona were charged last weekend, at various stadiums there was a form of protest against the supposed corruption scandal.
It was clearest in the Basque country, where Xavi Hernandez's side faced Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.
Supporters threw mock money onto the pitch with “mafia” printed on it, along with Barcelona’s club emblem.
“I was surprised at the hostile atmosphere towards Barca, it was sad to see,“ said Xavi after his team’s narrow 1-0 win.
“(Barca) are being judged prematurely, which I don’t think is good for society.”
After Barcelona's payments to Negreira's company were unearthed in February, the club responded quickly and denied any wrongdoing.
President Joan Laporta said the club had ordered an external investigation and would provide answers as quickly as they could.
However, they have not scheduled a news conference to answer questions on the issue and their silence has been criticised by La Liga president Javier Tebas.
“Yes (It’s the worst moment) that I remember,“ Tebas told Movistar channel Vamos on Tuesday.
“The problem that we have is the worst. There are payments recognised by Barcelona to the vice-president of the CTA, that’s something abnormal.
“It’s understandable that tension is generated. The reputation of our football is at stake. I am ashamed. We have no explanation from Barcelona.”
Playing the victim
Laporta did speak at a lunch event with the Equestrian Circle in Barcelona and said there was a “campaign” to damage Barcelona’s interests.
“Let it be clear Barca have never bought referees and Barca have never had the intention of buying referees, absolutely never,“ said the president.
Some, including Tebas, have criticised Laporta and Barcelona for playing the victim.
Last Sunday Real Madrid joined the proceedings against Barca as an “injured party”, along with the CTA, Spanish football federation, La Liga and Spain’s national sports council.
Barcelona will not host the traditional directors lunch with Real Madrid and their president Florentino Perez ahead of the Clasico as a result, according to Spanish reports.
After a period of relatively friendly relations between the two clubs -- both collaborating on the failed breakaway European Super League plan -- it marks a cooling.
However, Perez was under pressure from supporters demanding Madrid take action against Barcelona.
Tebas spoke again on Thursday, saying he did not think Barcelona had “bought referees” but he also said that “hiding is not the way” and the club had to provide full answers.
The league's president reiterated that no sporting punishment can be handed to Barcelona as the alleged infringements happened too long ago.
Laporta took to social media on Friday to try and turn attention towards the Clasico, asking for the fans' support more than ever as the club closes in on their first La Liga title since 2019.
“We will defend ourselves and we will attack, but now I want us to concentrate on cheering the team on,“ said Laporta.
“We shouldn’t have our attention diverted by other things. Let’s support Barca because we love them.” - AFP