Clasico overshadowed by Barcelona referee corruption charge

Spain's Clasico is one of the world's biggest sporting occasions, pitting giants Barcelona and Real Madrid head-to-head, but the build-up to Sunday's La Liga clash has been overshadowed by "Caso Negreira".

Spanish prosecutors have charged Barcelona with corruption for payments totaling around 7.3 million euros ($7.8 million) made to the company of former refereeing chief Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira between 2001 and 2018.

The club claims they were paying for reports and refereeing advice, but prosecutors accuse them of attempting to influence officials' decisions.

Barcelona, as well as former vice president of Spain's refereeing committee (CTA) Negreira and two former Barcelona presidents, Sandro Rosell and Josep Maria Bartomeu, were charged last week.

Although La Liga leaders Barcelona can virtually clinch the title if they beat second-place Real Madrid on Sunday and move 12 points clear, the Negreira case continues to dominate headlines, with tensions rising throughout Spain.

At various stadiums during the first round of matches following Barcelona's arrest last weekend, there was a form of protest against the alleged corruption scandal.

It was most obvious in the Basque country, where Xavi Hernandez's team faced Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.

Supporters threw fake money onto the pitch with the word "mafia" and the Barcelona club emblem printed on it.

"I was surprised at the hostile atmosphere towards Barca, it was sad to see," Xavi said following his team's 1-0 victory.

"I don't think (Barca) are being judged prematurely, which is bad for society."

After payments to Negreira's company were discovered in February, Barcelona responded quickly and denied any wrongdoing.

President Joan Laporta stated that the club had ordered an external investigation and would respond as soon as possible.

However, they have not scheduled a press conference to answer questions about the situation, and La Liga president Javier Tebas has criticized their silence.

"Yes, (it's) the worst moment I can recall," Tebas said on Movistar channel Vamos on Tuesday.

"Our problem is the most serious. There are payments recognized by Barcelona to the CTA vice-president, which is unusual.

"It's understandable that tension exists. Our football's reputation is on the line. I'm embarrassed. "We have received no explanation from Barcelona."

- Playing the victim - At a lunch event with the Equestrian Circle in Barcelona, Laporta stated that there was a "campaign" to harm Barcelona's interests.

"Let it be clear that Barcelona has never bought referees and has never had the intention of buying referees, absolutely never," the president stated.

Some, including Tebas, have accused Laporta and Barcelona of being victimized.

Real Madrid, the CTA, the Spanish football federation, La Liga, and Spain's national sports council all joined the proceedings against Barcelona as "injured parties" on Sunday.

According to Spanish media, Barcelona will not host the traditional directors lunch with Real Madrid and their president Florentino Perez ahead of the Clasico.

After a period of relatively friendly relations between the two clubs — both of which collaborated on the failed breakaway European Super League plan — it represents a cooling.

Perez, on the other hand, was under pressure from supporters who demanded that Madrid take action against Barcelona.

Tebas spoke again on Thursday, saying that he did not believe Barcelona had "bought referees," but that "hiding is not the way" and that the club had to provide complete answers.

The league's president reiterated that no sporting punishment can be imposed on Barcelona because the alleged violations occurred too long ago.

On Friday, Laporta took to social media to try to refocus attention on the Clasico, asking for fans' support more than ever as the club approaches their first La Liga title since 2019.

"We'll defend and attack, but right now I want us to focus on cheering on the team," Laporta said.

"We must not allow other things to divert our attention. Let us rally behind Barcelona because we adore them."

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