BARCELONA, Spain (AP) (10 April 2020) — Six members of Barcelona’s executive board have resigned amid an ongoing controversy regarding a company hired by the club that made negative comments on social media about some of the team’s own players.
Barcelona denied any wrongdoing and said Friday that the resignations were part of “an attempt to face the challenge of the final phase of the mandate” of club president Josep Bartomeu.
In a statement published by Barcelona-based newspaper La Vanguardia, the six former board members said they “must underscore our disappointment caused by the unfortunate social media incident, known as ‘Barçagate,’ which we learned about through the media.”
In February, Spain’s Cadena Ser radio network reported that a company hired by Barcelona used fake social media accounts to discredit opposition figures and even some of its players when they expressed views that went against the club.
Cadena Ser said some of the figures included players Lionel Messi and Gerard Piqué, former coach Pep Guardiola, as well as potential rivals of Bartomeu. Messi, the club’s all-time leading scorer, has clashed with sports director Eric Abidal this season.
Barcelona denied the reports, saying that it had hired the company I3 Ventures to monitor social media traffic about the club. Later, it ordered an external probe by PriceWaterhouseCoopers consultants to determine the nature of the work carried out by the company.
Following his resignation from the board, Emili Rousaud said he suspected that there may have been financial misdeeds involved in the payment of I3 Ventures.
“The issue of the social media is dirty,” Rousaud told Catalan radio station RAC-1 on Friday. “I believe someone had his or her hand in the till. But I don’t know who, although I don’t think it was someone on the board.”
Barcelona responded by saying “in the light of the serious and unfounded accusations made this morning by Mr. Emili Rousaud, ex-institutional vice president at the club, … FC Barcelona categorically denies any activity that can be described as corruption.”
The club said that it would announce the findings of the probe when it is complete. It added that the resignation of the board members was part of a “reorganization” of the club officials carried out by Bartomeu.
Barcelona leads the Spanish league, which is suspended during the coronavirus pandemic, but it has had a difficult season. It has had to replace its coach and the social media scandal has put serious pressure on Bartomeu, whose term runs until the end of the 2020-21 season.
Barcelona’s Crisis Deepens
Relationships had been strained for some time and tensions had been brought to the surface, particularly by Bartomeu’s handling of the pay cuts imposed on the players, which had prompted Lionel Messi and the club captains to be openly critical.
In a collective letter deposited with a notary, the six board members who resigned cited their inability to change the way the club is being managed and called for presidential elections at the earliest opportunity.
Bartomeu had encouraged vice-presidents Emili Rousaud and Enrique Tombas as well as directors Silvio Elias and Josep Pont to resign as he moved against those who criticised his handling of Barcelona, but he had not expected them to be joined by Jordi Calsamiglia and Maria Teixidor, the secretary of the board.
A letter signed by the six on Thursday night was published by the newspaper La Vanguardia, and Teixidor informed Bartomeu of the decision by telephone. Rousaud had been made a vice-president only at the start of January as Bartomeu sought to put a succession plan into place.
Barcelona Statutes Regarding Board Elections
Bartomeu is not obliged to call elections until 2021, when he will not be able to run for re-election.
According to the club’s statutes, Bartomeu can continue in the presidency because the number of those resigning is below 50% of the board. Those statutes also say there must be at least 14 board members and the six resignations have reduced that to 13. It is possible further resignations may follow as the crisis deepens. If that happens Bartomeu would be forced to resign his office.
There have been claims that Barcelona had paid the company I3 Ventures to set up online accounts that allegedly wrote stories defending the president and damaging the image of some players and former players. It is claimed the service was paid for in three instalments, allegedly to avoid it being detected by internal financial controls. An investigation into these allegations by PricewaterhouseCoopers is pending.
Barcelona have issued a statement denying wrongdoing and Bartomeu has described the allegations as “completely false”. I3 has also denied wrongdoing.
Bartomeu’s Presidency Plagued by Turnover
Rousaud and Tombas join Susana Monje, Javier Faus, Carles Villarrubí, Manuel Aroyo and Jordi Mestre as vice-presidents who have resigned under Bartomeu, who is both president and vice-president. Eleven of 21 board members have resigned and of the vice-presidents who began with him in 2015 only one remains.
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