Sensational claims that Barcelona hired a social media company to bolster the image of senior officials at the club while tarnishing that of players including Lionel Messi has added to the sense of a club approaching turmoil.
Barcelona were forced to deny in the strongest terms on Monday claims in the local media that bosses contracted social media company I3 Ventures to post messages on Facebook and Twitter accounts which burnished the reputation of President Josep Maria Bartomeu and his board, while criticizing other figures at the club from the past and present – including current captain Messi and defensive stalwart Gerard Pique.
“FC Barcelona roundly deny any relationship, and furthermore, the contracting of services linked to social media accounts that have broadcast negative or disparaging messages related to any person, entity or organisation that may be, or have been, related to the Club,” a strongly-worded denial from Barcelona read.
The club went on to threaten legal action against the source of the claims, demanding “an immediate rectification of the information published and reserv[ing] the right to exercise legal action against those who continue to implicate the Club in such practices.”
Stern words from Barcelona, who are clearly determined to reduce any damage to their reputation from what they state are scurrilous lies.
But for Barca bosses, this is yet another very public fire for them to fight, and comes hot on the heels of the spat between club icon Messi and sporting director Eric Abidal earlier this month.
In that case, Messi issued a rare public statement on club affairs in which he criticized Abidal’s suggestions that some of the squad had not given their best efforts under sacked manager Ernesto Valverde.
“You should give names because otherwise you are tainting everyone’s name and feeding rumours that spread and are not true,” Messi fumed at his former teammate Abidal.
Abidal stayed in his job as club figures preached unity, but it was an unsightly row for a team which, under new manager Quique Setien, is seeking a return to a playing style more aligned with past glories while maintaining a domestic challenge and assault on the Champions League.
In La Liga terms, Barcelona picked up a crucial 2-1 win against third-place Getafe at the Nou Camp at weekend, which moved them to within a point of Real Madrid after the league-leaders were held to a shock 2-2 home draw to strugglers Celta Vigo 24 hours later.
But Setien is presiding over a squad with particularly thin attacking option after injuries to Luis Suarez and the brittle Ousmane Dembele.
Barca failed to bring anyone in during the January transfer window, but were on Monday at least handed special dispensation to sign a striker given their injury woes.
In the Champions League, they face a tricky last 16 tie against Napoli, starting in Italy next week.
It will not be a help for their planned playing rebuild under Setien to be carried out amid the backdrop of broader scandal – no matter the club’s rejections of the claims against them.
Instead, what it will do is further fuel speculation of the direction of the club and its skipper Messi, especially given the revelation that he has an option to walk away from the club each summer, and the fact that he would be coveted by any number of fellow giants across Europe.
Messi has proclaimed his commitment to the club he has been at since the age of 12, but the latest scandal – which again drags in his name – will likely offer more hope to outsiders of finally luring the Argentine maestro away from his Nou Camp home.
It is partly that fear which perhaps prompted Barcelona to be so swift and so vehement with their denials amid Monday’s scandal.