Barcelona denies role in social media attacks on players

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              Soccer coach Quique Setien smiles with FC Barcelona's President Josep Maria Bartomeu, right, while being officially introduced as the club's new coach at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. Barcelona made a rare coaching change midway through the season, replacing Ernesto Valverde with former Real Betis manager Quique Setien on Monday. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Barcelona on Monday denied accusations it hired a company to make negative comments about its own players and opponents on social media in order to boost the image of senior club officials.

Barcelona released a statement after the Cadena Ser radio network said a company used fake social media accounts to discredit opposition figures and even some of its players when they expressed views that went against the club.

Cadena Ser said some of the figures included star players Lionel Messi and Gerard Piqué as well as former coach Pep Guardiola.

Barcelona said it “roundly” denies “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.”

It said the company in question, I3 Ventures, is “a service provider” to the club but “has no relationship with the accounts mentioned and, if any relationship were to come to light, the club would immediately end their contractual agreement and bring about any necessary legal action to defend their interests.”

Cadena Ser said the campaign was meant to improve the image of club president Josep Bartomeu and the board of directors, and also targeted other presidential candidates.

Messi recently clashed with the club hierarchy when he criticized sporting director Eric Abidal on social media.

Barcelona said it does pay for services to monitor “social media with the aim of analyzing both positive and negative messages about the organisation itself.”

“The club is attempting to look after and preserve its reputation as well those of people related to the club (sponsors, players, board members, members, supporters’ club members…), as far as the protection of this reputation is a fundamental element and responsibility for those who work for the organisation,” the statement said.

Barcelona demanded “an immediate rectification of the information published” and said it reserved “the right to exercise legal action against those who continue to implicate the club in such practices.”