The spirited defense of Barcelona soccer club made by the government’s top sports official in EL PAÍS, printed on Tuesday in Spanish under the headline “Proud of Barcelona,” has sparked an avalanche of criticism. In the opinion piece by secretary of state for sport Miguel Cardenal, in which he supported the Catalan club in light of the court case it is facing for alleged tax fraud over the signing of Brazilian star Neymar, he argued that the club was an essential part of “brand Spain,” stating that “no one thinks that anyone from Barcelona has made off with any amount of money.”
Javier Zaragoza, the chief prosecutor at the High Court, which is in charge of investigating the Neymar case, on Tuesday wrote to the attorney general, Eduardo Torres-Dulce, to denounce what he described as “illegitimate interference” by Cardenal, describing the article as “unacceptable.” Zaragoza went on to argue that the actions of Cardenal, who is also the president of the Spanish Sports Council (CSD), are “incompatible with the minimum institutional respect that is required from a senior public official.”
The column also drew the ire of many people on social networks such as Twitter, with one user commenting: “So, according to Cardenal, given that Barsa [sic] play well, it’s OK for them to rob from us all.”
After hearing the news of the prosecutor’s reaction, the CSD released a statement on Tuesday evening saying Cardenal has the “utmost respect” for the justice system and the Tax Agency.
Political parties such as the main opposition Socialists and Union, Progress and Democracy (UPyD) also came out to criticize Cardenal on Tuesday for meddling in a case that is by no means closed, and has already seen the soccer club pay 13.5 million euros to the Tax Agency as a “preventive measure.”
But the strongest reactions to Cardenal’s article were to be found in Congress. “It seems incredibly strange to me that an active secretary of state should defend a soccer club that is currently under investigation,” said Carlos Martínez Gorriarán, one of the leaders of UPyD in the chamber. He went on to say that Cardenal should be “neutral,” and reminded him that “as a member of government, he should guarantee that the law is respected” rather than “defending those who are suspected of having broken it.”
Socialist spokeswoman Soraya Rodríguez, meanwhile, called for “maximum respect” for the ongoing judicial investigation.
Not all of the opposition came out against Cardenal’s actions, however. The spokesperson for the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), Alfred Bosch, said he thought it was “good” that the president of the CSD “worried about all soccer clubs.” But he added that the sport is “a very heated subject for someone who is dedicated to politics to get involved in.”
Soccer is a very heated subject for someone who is dedicated to politics to get involved in”
Neymar was signed by Barcelona last summer, in a deal that was originally stated as costing 57.1 million euros. However, it later emerged that the club had also paid a 40-million-euro fee to the firm N&N, which is owned by Neymar’s parents.
The case reached the courts after a member of FC Barcelona club, Jordi Cases, lodged a complaint about the deal. A judge subsequently opened an investigation based on Cases’ claims of financial wrongdoing, leading to the resignation of Sandro Rosell as club president.
Late last month, Barcelona made the aforementioned payment of 13.5 million euros to the Spanish tax authorities, taking the total cost of Neymar’s transfer to 99.7 million euros.
The club, however, is insisting that there were no irregularities in the operation that brought the Brazilian to Barcelona.