BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Spanish police raided the offices of the country's soccer federation on Thursday as part of an investigation into the payment of millions of dollars over several years by Barcelona to a former vice president of Spain’s refereeing committee.
The Guardia Civil confirmed to The Associated Press that its police had searched the offices of the refereeing committee at federation headquarters near Madrid. Police said they had not made any arrests and were acting on the orders of judge Joaquin Aguirre, who is investigating the case for a court in Barcelona.
In March, state prosecutors formally accused Barcelona of corruption in sports, fraudulent management, and falsification of mercantile documentation. Prosecutors said the club paid José María Enríquez Negreira, a former referee who was a part of the federation's refereeing committee from 1994-2018, 7.3 million euros ($7.7 million) from 2001-18.
The raids come after the federation has been rocked by a sexism scandal after its former president kissed a player on the lips without her consent during the Women’s World Cup awards ceremony last month.
Also Thursday, Aguirre formally added a new accusation to the probe, saying there are indications that bribery occurred between Barcelona and Negreira. The accusation of bribery replaces the previous accusation of corruption in sports.
The payments were initially investigated as part of a tax probe into a company run by Negreira.
Barcelona has denied any wrongdoing or conflict of interest, saying it paid for technical reports on referees but never tried to influence their decisions in games.
Barcelona coach Xavi Hernández, who played for Barcelona from 1998-2015, repeated his defense of the club on Thursday.
“I have never, ever had the impression that referees favored us,” the former Spain midfielder said.
During the years under investigation, Barcelona won nine Spanish league titles and six Copa del Rey trophies.
The accusations are against Barcelona, Negreira, former Barcelona presidents Sandro Rosell and Josep Maria Bartomeu, and former Barcelona executives Óscar Grau and Albert Soler.
Negreira did not referee games during the years he was paid by Barcelona. His duties were administrative. But he reportedly did influence decisions on which referees worked in the topflight or lower divisions.
Getting reports on referees is common practice in Spain and clubs can pay other companies or have them prepared internally, as Barcelona does now. But paying large amounts of money to a person involved in the running of Spain’s referees for reports is not a normal practice.
Spain's referees defended their honor in March, saying that their honesty should not be put in doubt by the scandal.
In Spain, an investigative judge carries out the initial investigation into a possible crime to determine if it should go to trial, which a different judge then oversees.
The case has also drawn the attention of UEFA, which oversees European soccer and runs the lucrative Champions League.
UEFA competition rules require teams to be removed from one season of European competition if they are implicated in fixing any domestic or international game. No allegations of any specific fixed games or referees who were influenced have emerged since UEFA opened its investigation into the case in March.
In July, UEFA cleared Barcelona to play in this season's Champions League, while also warning that it would be watching to see if more evidence of potential wrongdoing emerged.
Spanish league president Javier Tebas said Thursday that “the ‘Negreira case’ is causing us a lot of damage."
“The mere fact that someone would try to influence (a referee) is punishable under Spanish law," Tebas said. "The investigation is ongoing, but a club paying Negreira is a very serious irregularity.”
In a statement late Thursday, the soccer federation said the raid was linked to an investigation of a previous administration and said it will continue to collaborate with authorities.
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