The fight for the glorious past is fought in the inglorious present. And it’s fought with heavily edited Twitter videos. Earlier last week, Real Madrid TV released an attack video targeting former LaLiga referee José María Enriquez Negreira. While this may seem a bit extreme, it’s worth noting that this was actually a sequel to Real Madrid TV’s previous attack video, which was aimed at referee Carlos Clos Gómez, who is now head of La Liga VAR.
Between Barcelona and Real Madrid there have been grander, glamorous and sharper encounters. But not many were struck stranger than Sunday night classic at Camp Nou, or more obviously full of fear, mudslinging and paranoia.
The game itself will either decide the title race or breathe some groundbreaking life into it. A defeat would reduce Barcelona’s lead at the top to six points with twelve games left, which still looks like a lot of points. Barcelona’s gap to third-place Atlético Madrid was a muscular 17 ahead of this weekend. If you squint, it could almost be the grand old days of the global duopoly, when the heyday of the Messi-Ronaldo years turned this game into its biggest single event of football made.
Related: Barcelona’s previous payments to the referee chief cast dark clouds over La Liga | Sid Lowe
But that’s not quite the case. Instead, this is a game played to the sound of recent history being angrily shared. The European Super League fiasco seemed to heal old wounds in the name of pursuing common interests, with reports of Joan Laporta and Florentino Pérez being regularly spotted dining together. The latest from Barcelona is that Laporta is considering holding the traditional pre-classic Lunch. Instead, La Liga’s two strongest clubs seem intent on eating each other.
Of course, the spark for all of this is the charges leveled against Barcelona this month in relation to payments made to Negreira during his time as a senior La Liga referee. Real Madrid have now officially joined the case, a process that allows them to support and provide evidence, which of course they always would.
This is already a scandal of staggering proportions. The period studied ranges from 2001 to 2018. During these years, Barcelona won 10 league titles, four Champions Leagues and three Club World Cups, establishing the Barça brand as the definitive modern sporting juggernaut.
The entire base of Messi-dom, the greatest individual club career in football history, was laid down around this time span. Huge, fortunes were made in the back. In 2018, Barcelona became the first sports team to reach $1 billion in annual revenue. At the same time, they paid a regular stipend of nearly €7 million to one of Spain’s highest-ranking referees. To give some context, this is tantamount to finding out that Manchester United secretly had Howard Webb on the payroll during the Ferguson years; and then argue in their defense that this should all be considered perfectly normal.
Hence the public anger, the online howling, the hostile compilations of alleged referee oddities in favor of Barcelona monitored by the said parties; hit back with counter-outrage at Real Madrid’s own influence at all levels of power in Spanish football.
Watching the clips and the cuts in these intricately edited videos, one is struck by the epic shapes and colors, the iconography of what, in hindsight, was the greatest global club football show ever hosted. Here the hyper-elastic CR7 throws itself onto the lawn with exciting athleticism. Here’s a boyish Lionel Messi looking stunned. Here are beautiful, shiny shots from the heart of the sporting world: Pep-José, Catalonia versus Royal Spain, a famous two-handed game that has propelled the commercial growth of global football more than any other single event. What would it mean to besmirch that era now, start tearing down those statues and throwing them in the harbor?
It has been reported that Barcelona directors will argue that Negreira was only being paid to offset what they saw as bias against other clubs, a sort of referee justice vigilante through the back door. It has also been alleged that Negreira threatened to go public if payments stopped, a statement which, if true, comes pretty close to an admission of wrongdoing (what else would be wrong with going public with it). to go?).
In addition, the line from Barcelona appears to be the payments for “scouting reports”, with the implication that everyone else is doing the same. The president, Laporta, denies any wrongdoing and insists Negreira worked as an advisor, prepared reports and guided players on refereeing issues – something Laporta described as “very normal”. He will testify, with a chance former Barça coaches Luis Enrique and Ernesto Valverde will also be implicated.
In reality, the likelihood of Barcelona being stripped, banned or financially beaten seems slim. Exactly what interests—what source of power and wealth—would this serve?
This could potentially pose an obstacle to the stadium’s refurbishment plans, which include raising a €1.5bn loan. This is a club precariously jacked onto its own economic levers, held hostage to a huge debt backed by its own good name, certain that this thing will always continue to generate excess revenue. And that’s probably what’s at stake here, the basic power source, the purity of that name,
Will it be possible to maintain this highly profitable sense of Barça exceptionalism when the dark and granular details come to light?
Barcelona managed to sell retail mes que U.N Association shtick while wearing Unicef and Qatar Airways on the same shirt, like a predatory moralizing double, always presenting himself as an outsider; the Ewoks not the Death Star. Everything starts to look a little stranger when this version of the past takes hold.
These are generally difficult times for La Liga, which has struggled to match the Premier League’s combination of huge television rights revenues and the presence of nation-state clubs with their own economic guarantees. There’s something touching and maybe a little creepy about the jealous zeal with which La Liga president Javier Tebas speaks about Kylian Mbappé suddenly being so vital to the mood, the energy and the aura.
This is a league that has fed on stars for 15 years and in which the president suddenly emerges as a Pandarus of sorts, purring about Madrid’s enduring commercial power, aware that his presence will be a vital boost in interest and TV would bring values to a league currently marinated in its own fear and loathing.
For now, Barcelona will be tight favorites on Sunday night. The referee’s story coincided with three consecutive wins and a feeling of electrifying anger. Only Bayern Munich have won at the Camp Nou all season. Pedri is back for Barça, Karim Benzema fit for Madrid. All that really seems certain is that it should be tight, scared, and a little bit spiteful.
At least some things don’t change.