TThe battle for the glorious past will be fought in the inglorious present. And it will be countered with heavily edited Twitter videos. Earlier last week, Real Madrid TV released what can only be described as an attack video, aimed at former La Liga referee José María Enriquez Negreira. If that seems a bit far-fetched, it’s important to note that it was actually a follow-up, sequel to Real Madrid TV’s previous attack video directed at referee Carlos Clos Gómez, now head of La Liga VAR.
There have been bigger, starrier and more tense clashes between Barcelona and Real Madrid. But few have been more strangely launched than Sunday night’s. classic at the Camp Nou, or more obviously filled with angst, vilification and paranoia.
The game itself will either decide the title race or inject some late life. Defeat would cut Barcelona’s lead at the top to six points with 12 games to go, which still looks like a lot of points. Barcelona’s gap to third-placed Atletico Madrid was 17 muscle this weekend. Squint and it could almost be the great old days of the global duopoly, when the flowering of the Messi-Ronaldo years made this game football’s biggest single event.
But that’s not quite it. Instead, this is an event that will be played to the sound of the recent past being angrily torn apart. The European Super League fiasco seemed to heal old wounds in the name of pursuing common interests, with accounts of Joan Laporta and Florentino Pérez regularly seen having dinner together. The latest from Barcelona is that Laporta is considering canceling the traditional pre-classic lunch. Instead, La Liga’s two most powerful clubs seem to want to eat each other.
The spark to it all is, of course, the allegations leveled against Barcelona this month in relation to payments made to Negreira during his time as La Liga’s senior referee. Real Madrid have now formally joined the case, a process that allows them to support and present evidence, which of course they always would.
This is already a scandal of jaw-dropping proportions. The period investigated runs from 2001 to 2018. During these years, Barcelona won 10 league titles, four Champions Leagues and three Club World Cups, in the process establishing Barça’s brand as an ultimate modern juggernaut.
The entire foundation of Messi-dom, the greatest individual club career in football history, was laid in this period. Vast, fortunes have been made on the back of it. In 2018, Barcelona became the first sports team to surpass $1 billion in annual revenue. All the while, they simultaneously paid one of Spain’s most experienced referees a regular stipend totaling almost €7 million. To give some context, this is the equivalent of discovering that Manchester United secretly had Howard Webb on the payroll during the Ferguson years; and then arguing in his defense that all this should be seen as perfectly normal.
Hence the public fury, the online howls, the hostile compilations of alleged pro-Barcelona arbitration oddities overseen by the named parties; reacted with indignation about the influence of Real Madrid itself on all levels of power in Spanish football.
Looking back at the clips and cuts in those expertly edited videos, what strikes are the epic shapes and colors, the iconography of what was, looking back, the greatest global club football show ever staged. Here’s CR7 hyperelastic and hurling himself with exhilarating athleticism onto the pitch. Here is a Lionel Messi boy looking perplexed. Here are bright, beautiful shots from the center of the sporting world: Pep-José, Catalunya versus the real Spain, a celebrity that has driven the game’s global commercial growth more than any other event. What would it mean to tarnish that era now, to start pulling those statues down and dumping them in the harbor?
It has been reported that Barcelona’s directors will argue that Negreira was only paid to correct what they saw as prejudice towards other clubs, a sort of backdoor vigilante vigilante. It has also been alleged that Negreira threatened to go public if the payments were stopped, a claim that, if true, is pretty close to an admission of wrongdoing (what would it otherwise be wrong to go public?).
Furthermore, Barcelona’s line seems to be payments in exchange for “prospect reports” with the implication that everyone else is doing it too. The chairman, Laporta, denies any wrongdoing, insisting that Negreira worked as an adviser, preparing reports and advising players on refereeing matters – something Laporta described as “very normal”. He will testify, with the chance that former Barça coaches Luis Enrique and Ernesto Valverde will also be called up.
In reality, the likelihood of Barcelona being ousted, banned or financially shaken seems remote. What interests exactly – what source of power and wealth – would it serve?
This could potentially pose an obstacle to plans to rebuild the stadium, which involve a €1.5 billion loan. This is a club precariously supported by its own economic levers, hostage to a vast debt backed by its own good name, the certainty that this thing will always continue to generate excess revenue. And it is undoubtedly what is at stake here, the basic source of energy, the purity of that name,
Will it be possible to maintain that highly lucrative Barça sense of exceptionalism when the dark and granular details emerge?
Barcelona managed to sell the more that un club shtick wearing Unicef and Qatar Airways in the same shirt, like a voracious moralizing duo, and always presenting himself as the underdog; the Ewoks not the Death Star. It all starts to feel a little weird if this version of the past takes hold.
These are tough times for La Liga, which has struggled to match the combination of the Premier League’s vast TV rights revenue and the presence of domestic clubs with their own economic guarantees. There is something touching, and perhaps a little frightening, about the jealous zeal with which La Liga president Javier Tebas talks about Kylian Mbappé, who is suddenly so vital to the vibes, energy and aura.
This is a league that has fed on stars for 15 years and where the president is suddenly acting like some kind of Pandarus, purring over Real Madrid’s enduring commercial power, aware of the vital increase in TV interest and values that his presence would bring to a league currently marinating in its own fear and hate.
For now, Barcelona will be favorites on Sunday night. The referee story coincided with three straight wins and a sense of galvanizing fury. Only Bayern Munich have won at the Camp Nou all season. Pedri is back at Barça, Karim Benzema fit for Real Madrid. All that really feels right is that it should be tight, distressed, and a little spiteful.
Some things, at least, do not change.