BARCELONA could be BANNED from Europe next season – after Uefa chiefs opened a formal probe into the ref-fixing charges against them.
Spanish prosecutors had opened a legal case against the Catalan club, who are accused of paying the country’s referees’ chief Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira more than £6.5m over a 17-YEAR period.
Barca are said to have made the payments between 2001 and 2018, including the four-year spell they were coached by Pep Guardiola – although there are no suggestions the Manchester City boss was aware of the agreement.
But now Uefa is also on the Barca case with a 12-month ban from playing in the Champions League written into the European football rulebook.
In a surprise statement, Euro chiefs in Nyon announced: “In accordance with Article 31(4) of the Uefa Disciplinary Regulations, Uefa Ethics and Disciplinary Inspectors have today been appointed to conduct an investigation regarding a potential violation of UEFA’s legal framework by FC Barcelona in connection with the so-called ‘Caso Negreira’.”
Those rules give investigators the right to demand written or face to face answers from directors and officials and the power to order all documentation possessed by the club is handed over for inspection.
Barca and former Presidents Josep Maria Bartomeu and Sandro Rosell, as well as Negreira, have all been hit with official corruption charges by the Spanish authorities.
It has been alleged that Negreira, who was in charge of refereeing appointments over that period, gave gifts worth £450,000 including booze, toasters, food and lottery tickets to the officials, although Barca have fiercely denied any wrongdoings and issued legal letters against a number of Spanish media outlets.
Leaks from the Spanish Treasury initial investigation suggest the chief prosecutor has so far been “unable to prove that the payments… had influenced the appointment of referees or altered the results of matches”.
However, officials suggest that the “lack of explanation” could be “an indicator” that the invoices had concealed illegal services that did impact of appointments and match results.
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Unsurprisingly, rival clubs, including Real Madrid, have demanded massive sanctions against the Nou Camp outfit.
And while Spanish FA rules, which have a three-year statute of limitations on “serious” offences, mean that LaLiga and the national association cannot impose a punishment, Uefa regulations open the door to a ban from European competition if the charges are proved.
It had been expected that Euro chiefs – who might see the situation as a wedge to drive between Barca and Real over their Super League involvement – would not consider any action until the end of the legal proceedings in Spain.
But Uefa legal department asked the Spanish FA for a full report on what the investigation has uncovered last month and now have launched their formal probe.
Uefa regulations say clubs must “refrain from any conduct that damages or is likely to damage the integrity of matches and competitions”.
That includes anybody using a “third party” to act “in a manner that is likely to exert an illegal or undue influence on the course and/or outcome of a match or competition”.
Any club breaching that rule is liable to a one season ban from playing in European competition.
Real have already joined a private prosecution, adding to the pressure on Barca, which has also been told it has a budget of MINUS £200m this summer.
The opening of the investigation does not mean that the case will be dealt with swiftly as Uefa could still choose to wait for the outcome of the Spanish proceedings.
But it is yet another shadow hanging over the Catalan club and adds to the sense of chaos surrounding Barca.