Police detain former Barcelona officials in search operation

Sports

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi scores from a penalty kick, during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between FC Barcelona and Cadiz at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Joan Monfort)

MADRID (AP) — Catalan police detained several people after raiding Barcelona’s stadium on Monday in a search and seizure operation, adding to the club’s turmoil less than a week before it holds presidential elections.

The operation was related to last year’s “Barçagate,” in which club officials were accused of launching a smear campaign against current and former players who were critical of the club and then-president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

Police said detentions were made but did not say who or how many people were taken into custody. Authorities spent several hours at the team’s headquarters searching documents and talking to employees.

The club, mired in debt of more than 1.1 billion euros ($1.3 billion), said it offered “full collaboration to the legal and police authorities to help make clear facts which are subject to investigation.” It added the case was related “to the contacting of monitoring services on social networks.”

“The information and documentation requested by the judicial police force relate strictly to the facts relative to this case. FC Barcelona (expresses) its utmost respect for the judicial process in place and for the principle of presumed innocence for the people affected within the remit of this investigation.”

The club did not mention Bartomeu, but Spanish media said he and other former club officials were among those detained.

A text message sent to Bartomeu was not immediately answered.

One of the three presidential candidates, Joan Laporta, told Lleida Radio that what happened on Monday “was a consequence of the bad management by the previous administration.” He said the news of Bartomeu’s reported detention was “shocking” and “not good” for the club, but noted that the former president deserved the “presumption of innocence.”

Laporta was Barcelona’s president a decade ago and, like Bartomeu, also faced a no-confidence vote during his time in charge.

Among those reportedly detained were club CEO Óscar Grau and legal department chief Román Gómez Ponti. Jaume Masferrer, Bartomeu’s former chief of staff, also was allegedly detained. They were taken to a police station for interrogation, Spanish media said, and police also went to Bartomeu’s house searching for evidence.

Court officials said a judge ordered the search and seize operation but the detentions had been made at the discretion of the police agents involved. Authorities said the operation was being carried out by the police’s financial crimes department.

Barcelona had denied accusations that it hired — and overpaid — a company to make negative comments about its own players and opponents on social media in order to boost the image of senior club officials.

The company was accused of using fake social media accounts to discredit opposition figures when they expressed views that went against the club. Some of the figures supposedly included players such Lionel Messi and Gerard Piqué, as well as former coach Pep Guardiola.

The club later released an independent audit report showing that there was no wrongdoing.

Bartomeu and his board of directors resigned last year amid fallout from the controversy surrounding Messi. The club has been mired in political turmoil and debt prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The club has been managed by a caretaker board since Bartomeu left in October while facing a no-confidence motion supported by thousands of club members furious at the team’s poor performances and the club’s financial situation.

The club’s struggles began to surface after the team’s embarrassing 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals of the Champions League last season, which was the first without a title for the Spanish club since 2007-08.

Bartomeu was loudly criticized by Messi, especially after the former president denied the player’s request to leave the club at the end of last season. Messi’s contract ends this season and the Argentine great has yet to say whether he will stay or go.

Barcelona is five points off the Spanish league lead. It lost at home to Paris Saint-Germain 4-1 in the first leg of the round of 16 of the Champions League and was beaten by Sevilla 2-0 in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals.

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

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