Former Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu and three other former or current Blaugrana senior figures namely Barcelona’s current CEO Oscar Grau, the club’s head of legal services Roman Gomez Ponti, as well as Bartomeu’s former chief of staff Jaume Masferrer who also left the club last year were arrested by Catalan police following a raid on their offices. However, Catalan police (known as the Mossos d’Esquadra) — with a warrant from investigating judge Alejandra Gil — arrived at the Camp Nou shortly to collect documents and other evidence and materials relating to a possible crime of misappropriation of club funds. The officers from Mossos’ financial crimes division remained at the stadium until after 5 pm, taking statements from Grau, Gomez Ponti and other club executives. Catalan media also reported that police also searched the homes of Bartomeu and Masferrer, as well as the Barcelona offices of I3 ventures — the IT consultancy whose services sparked the whole “Barcagate” scandal. The arrest of a former club president and serving senior executives was pretty sensational and obviously hugely serious for them personally.
The incident came into limelight following a complaint made by a Barcelona fan group that Barcelona’s board hired the connected companies I3 Ventures and NS Group (also called NiceStream) to improve its social media usage and reputation in November 2017, with the club’s accounts showing it paid them around €1 million a year. However, these firms had been using “troll” accounts to besmirch the reputation of those who were seen as critics or “enemies” of the then-president Bartomeu’s hierarchy — including club legends such as Pep Guardiola, Carles Puyol and Xavi, current players Gerard Pique and Lionel Messi, and possible presidential candidates Agusti Benedito and Victor Font.
A former Barcelona director revealed the exact nature of the contracts with the social media consultants was deliberately hidden from oversight by the relevant committees within the club. While those involved denied any wrongdoing, six board members resigned last April when what had been done started to come to light. Barcelona’s compliance officer Noelia Romero also left the club a few weeks later, in still unexplained circumstances. An internally funded investigation by PwC in July found that Barcelona had paid more than €3 million to the NS Group over the preceding three years and that “the protocols for internal validation at the club were not followed”, specifically in the use of multiple smaller contracts each valued just under €200,000, which did not trigger the oversight for bigger payments mandated in the club’s statutes. The report however went on to clear the club hierarchy of any serious wrongdoing. By that stage, Bartomeu’s board had already terminated the agreement with the firm.
The club along with the companies in question denied any wrongdoings with FC Barcelona issuing a statement which read:
"Before the entry and search by the Catalan Police force this morning at the Camp Nou offices under the instruction 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. The information and documentation requested by the judicial police force relate strictly to the facts relative to this case. FC Barcelona express its great respect for the judicial process in place and for the principle of presumed innocence for the people affected within the remit of this investigation."
Josep Maria Bartomeu previously held the position of Barcelona president for almost seven years, beginning in 2014 and ending in 2020. He replaced former president Sandro Rosell, and was named the 40th President of Barcelona. During his reign, Barcelona won the Liga title four times as well as the 2014-15 Champions League, but he will most likely be known for the club's struggles during the end of his tenure - as well as the Messi transfer saga. His final years will be immortalised by the lack of success in replacing Neymar, a trophyless 2019-20 season and the infamous 8-2 loss against Bayern in the 2019-20 Champions League. Bartomeu resigned as Barcelona president in October 2020 amid heavy pressure from the club's fan base, who already called for a vote of no confidence to oust him from his post before board re-elections in March.
I3 Ventures, on the other hand, is a company owned by Argentine businessman Carlos Ibanez. According to the website, it is a company that uses "data analysis to build knowledge about human behaviour". They also describe themselves as a "one-stop-shop agency with six years of experience in brand strategy, research and construction. Our experience with online audiences allows us to analyse and predict human behaviour and determine the relevant aspects to focus on." Ibanez told Catalan radio in February 2020 that his company had “received €198,000 per year” from Barcelona and that he was “unaware if the club invests in other digital services”. He insisted his company was not behind the “troll” accounts which had targeted critics and perceived enemies of Bartomeu and his board.
All three candidates in Sunday’s election to become Barcelona’s new president, Joan Laporta, Victor Font and Toni Freixa have been understandably keen to distance themselves from Bartomeu and many of the actions of the Blaugrana board through recent years. Laporta was surprised by the breaking news of the arrests during a live interview on a radio station in the Catalan city of Lleida mid-morning on Monday and reacted by saying that it was “not good for Barca, not nice news to hear”. The current favourite to replace Bartomeu, Joan Laporta who is now elected as club’s 41st president, later issued an official video statement saying that “regarding the club today being raided by investigators, and the arrest of the ex-president and club directors, the ‘Estim el Barca’ campaign wishes to say that we have maximum respect for judicial and police activities, as well as maximum respect for presumption of innocence”. All three candidates were careful during the campaign when asked whether they would take action against Bartomeu and the previous board were they elected, either for the Barcagate scandal or the club’s huge financial problems. However, Laporta and Font especially have said the club must cooperate with the police investigation and that any criminal wrongdoing which is uncovered must be pursued as far as possible.
Barcelona’s staff have long grown used to unexpected drama and twists and nothing that happened on Monday is likely to make a significant difference to the club’s currently very serious situation on and off the pitch. Bartomeu was already widely seen as the worst president in Barcelona’s club history, while his close ally Masferrer had his contract terminated by interim club president Carles Tusquets last October. The situations of current club employees Grau and Gomez Ponti remain to be seen — although it was unlikely that either would have kept their senior executive roles once a new president was elected. With the judicial investigation ongoing, further developments look very likely, but it should not impede the new president and directors from starting on the deep reforms required at the Nou Camp. Even though Bartomeu is currently out on bail after appearing before Spanish judge, the sorry reality for the Blaugrana family however is that such extraordinary events have been happening so regularly in recent years that nobody would bet against more similar twists and turns arriving over the coming days and months.