On February 15, news broke that prosecutors were investigating payments from Barcelona to a man who at the time was vice-president of the refereeing committee of Spanish football.
Just over a month on, Barca have been charged with corruption over their relationship with Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira, who received €7.3m (£6.4m; £7.8m) from the club between 2001 and 2018. Both the parties have pleaded not guilty.
The Negreira case has dominated the media in Spain. Many see it as the biggest scandal to hit the national team and there has been a tidal wave of reactions. But it took Real madrid long time to share their thoughts.
The La Liga champions waited nine days before making an official comment. When they did, it came through Emilio Butragueno, a legendary former player who is now the club’s director of institutional relations. And even then it was just to talk about having to wait longer.
After Real Madrid’s home draw against Atletico Madrid on February 25, Butragueno said: “We have to respect the time of justice and now have to wait for the outcome of the public prosecutor’s investigation.
A more interesting development had come four days earlier, indicating that Madrid had perhaps remained silent for a reason.
Monday, February 21 at La Liga held an internal meeting with all teams in the competition to update them on the new salary cap for each club. As expected, concerns about the Negreira case were quickly thrown into the conversation.
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La Liga’s representative committee, made up of 14 clubs from the first and second divisions, then released a statement expressing “deep concern” over the matter. It also said an attempt to release a joint message from all clubs had been rejected by just two, without naming them.
It was Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Commentators were quick to point out that there could be a number of possible reasons for this, including the fact that these days Barca and Madrid can often be found lining up in pursuit of common interests such as the European Super League and their rivalry with La Liga, prolonged fierce competition.
La Liga sources, who chose to remain anonymous when speaking to athletic, are convinced that Madrid wanted to avoid any action that could damage their relationship with Barca because of these links.
Sources close to A22 Sports, the company behind plans to form a European Super League backed by Madrid and Barca, said Athletic they saw no potential increase in tension between the clubs that would affect their plans.
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Athletic has made several requests for comment to Madrid since news first broke of Barca’s payments to Enriquez Negreira, but has received almost no response.
It was only last weekend – three and a half weeks since reports first emerged – that they finally released a statement from the club.
Things only started to accelerate after it was confirmed that Barca would be charged. It arrived on Friday, March 10. At lunchtime on Saturday, shortly before kick-off in their home game against Espanyol, Real Madrid announced that club president Florentino Perez would hold an emergency board meeting to discuss their next steps.
So what was going on behind the scenes at this point? Had they just waited for more details before revealing their position?
Again, club sources who are usually responsive to requests for comment did not respond to messages from Athletic.
But one interesting interpretation of Madrid’s apparent strategy came from a La Liga source, who speculated that the club only took the action they did because they feared a backlash from fans if they failed to act.
It should again be noted that La Liga and Madrid (as with Barca) do not currently enjoy the greatest relationship. Madrid, where possible, avoid having anything to do with La Liga. The club believes it is in conflict with the competition body – which is against the Super League. But the Madrid supporters had certainly made themselves heard.
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On March 2, the Santiago Bernabeu had been the scene of fan protests, with Madrid supporters throwing fake €500 notes into the night sky when Barcelona visited in the first half. Copa del Rey semi finals.
This was just one reflection of how strong the reaction has been among Madrid fans. This tone has followed the program of Real Madrid TV, which in recent weeks has put the spotlight on refereeing decisions in Barca matches throughout history.
But nothing had come from the club itself.
Madrid’s 3-1 win over Espanyol last Saturday saw more chants from fans targeting Barcelona and others involved in the Negreira scandal – from both the home and away supporters.
Then, on Sunday, after a meeting at the Valdebebas sports center that lasted about an hour, Madrid announced their intention to join the case. Madrid have said they always intended to wait until such moves were authorized by the courts before deciding on next steps. The club says it has taken these actions because it wants to support the legal process and gain access to the information and facts of the case that would otherwise not be available.
Barcelona officials learned of Madrid’s plans a few hours before the first leg of their away trip to Athletic Bilbao. Barca sources, who requested anonymity to protect their roles, shared the following assessment Athletic: that such a measure would not make much difference to the relations and it was not the intention to make comments.
Shortly after this, Barca president Joan Laporta expressed his thoughts via Twitter: “Barca is innocent of the allegations made and is the victim of a campaign that now involves everyone to damage its honor.
The following day, Laporta delivered an emotionally charged and populist address to his club’s fans, in which he lamented the “vicious attacks aimed at us to tarnish our image”.
He added: “I don’t get emotional as a sign of weakness. I’m emotional because I can’t wait to face all the scoundrels who tarnish our brand and our club.”
When the two clubs meet on Sunday, they will do so, once again, as sporting rivals with shared business interests and shared ideas about how to grow. Despite the tone struck by Laporta, or the Madrid fans who have protested since their February 15 home game against Elchethere are few signs of a major rift in relations.
But there have still been some further ripples of upset. First of all, there is a high probability that there will not be a lunch between the boards as is customary.
On Thursday, sources in Madrid shared Athletic their travel plans, which included no such plans for a meal, but they said an invitation would be accepted if Barcelona offered one. They also pointed to some past examples where many matches have been played in a short period of time where no table lunch has been held. Sunday’s game will be the second of three Clasicos in five weeks.
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Some reports have claimed that Barca would only hold a meal with their Madrid counterparts if they offered some sort of public apology, without specifying exactly what they should regret.
Also on Thursday, the match referees were announced for Sunday’s match.
The referee will be Ricardo de Burgos Bengoetxea, who is not involved in the current scandal but will no doubt be aware that Madrid have not been happy with a number of his recent decisions during Clasicos.
His first was in the first leg of the Supercopa de Espana 2017. Tonight at the Camp Nou, the Santiago Bernabeu is remembered for a penalty awarded on Luis Suarez that according to Madrid should not have been judged, and also for the red card shown Cristiano Ronaldo after he pushed the referee when he disagreed with his decision.
De Burgos Bengoetxea has refereed the second Clasico, the final of the latest Supercopa in January, an excellent 3-1 win for Barca. Madrid believes Ronald Araujo should have been sent off for a hard tackle Vinicius Jr at the beginning of the game.
In between, De Burgos Bengoetxea was VAR in La Liga Clasico in December 2018. Madrid remember that he decided to award two penalties that the club felt should have been awarded for infringements on Raphael Varane.
“He will be under a lot of pressure at Camp Nou,” said a source in Madrid. “Hopefully it won’t affect anything and he can whistle quietly.”
(Top image: Alvaro Medranda/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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