Barcelona are alleged to have paid a third-party company to discredit players, club legends and presidential candidates, among others, plunging the club further into crisis off the field.
SER Catalunya reported on Monday that I3 Ventures was contracted by the club with the initial idea of helping to clean up president Josep Maria Bartomeu’s image.
Sources have subsequently told ESPN the club have been working with I3 since the beginning of 2017. The Argentine company, which has bases in Madrid and Barcelona, has received just less than €1 million from the Catalan club for running various campaigns.
Pique was criticised for his involvement in organising the the Davis Cup competition, while Messi and his partner Antonella Roccuzzo have also been targeted. However, on many other occasions, campaigns were run in defence of Messi, praising the club’s record goalscorer.
Club legends Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol and Pep Guardiola have also been discredited by accounts run by I3, as have presidential candidates Agusti Benedito and Victor Font.
Benedito responded on Monday when he said he would file a lawsuit against Bartomeu and his board of directors. Font, meanwhile, said the club’s board must come out immediately and offer an explanation because the allegations are “extremely worrying.”
“It means that, with the club’s money, the board of directors have targeted their own members, first-team players, Catalan social entities and media,” Font said in a statement.
“This defamation campaign borne from the results of a journalistic investigation stains Barca, shames us club members and makes the club’s situation even worse because, in addition to the delicate sporting and economic situation, moral bankruptcy has also been added.”
Barcelona have been contacted for comment from ESPN but have not yet responded.
It’s the second time in two weeks that Barcelona have made headlines for the wrong reasons off the pitch.
On Feb. 4, Messi engaged in a war of words with Eric Abidal after the Barcelona sporting director suggested Ernesto Valverde was fired because the players were not happy with him.
Clear-the-air talks with Bartomeu the next day helped cool the atmosphere at the club but tension remains behind the scenes.
Bartomeu has a mandate to preside over the club until 2021 but sources close to the club suggest it is not out of the question that an election takes place this year. Bartomeu, who is in his second term as the club’s president, will not be able to stand, but the board of directors will offer an alternative candidate.
Meanwhile, Barca remain in the hunt for two trophies on the pitch. They are one point behind Real Madrid at the top of La Liga and face Napoli in the round of 16 of the Champions League next week. They were eliminated from the Copa del Rey by Athletic Bilbao.