Ferran Soriano, the Manchester City chief executive, has become embroiled in allegations that he authorised payments for “spying” on internal emails during his five-year spell as financial vice-president of Barcelona.
Prosecutors in Catalonia have alleged that Soriano – appointed by City in August – helped former Barcelona president Joan Laporta illegally monitor communications, with certain key words flagging up emails of interest to the regime.
The Catalonia Public Prosecutor’s Office says Soriano and former Barcelona managing director Joan Oliver are being investigated for criminal liability.
City were on Tuesday night unaware of any contact between the investigators and Soriano, who is believed to be relaxed about developments in Spain.
The 45-year-old replaced the previous City chief executive Garry Cook, who left the club in September 2011 after an email exchange with Brian Marwood, then City’s football administrator, in which he ridiculed the cancer-stricken mother of defender Nedum Onuoha.
While senior figures at City declined to comment about the allegations against Soriano, there is a growing sense that he may be the victim of a dirty-tricks campaign emanating from Barcelona as a result of the Premier League champions aiming to exploit his success at the Nou Camp, and that of sporting director Txiki Begiristain, in order to accelerate City’s growth on and off the pitch.
The increasing rivalry between the clubs has led to claims in Barcelona that City have tried to lure Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets and Pedro Rodríguez away from the Nou Camp — suggestions which have been strenuously denied.
While City are one of a number of high-profile clubs interested in signing Brazilian forward Neymar, Barcelona are thought to have all but secured the Santos player — a reality which has hinted at recent speculation linking City to the player being driven by attempts to embarrass the Manchester club if Neymar is unveiled at the Nou Camp.
The allegations against Soriano relate to claims that he ordered a company called Cyber Experience to install an internal server called Encase Enterprise which, between 2005 and 2008, monitored all internal emails containing certain key words.
The senior prosecutor has found that Soriano signed off invoices to another company, Intelligence Bureau, and Cyber Experience and that meetings were held to keep Soriano and other board members informed of findings.
Originally, around 20 computers were monitored in this way with “stopping leaks to the press” being the motivation behind the surveillance, but Cyber Experience later recommended covering the whole internal network.
Prosecutors have also found that Barcelona paid a private detective agency to compile files on four presidential candidates at a cost of £14,000 each, without their knowledge.
But while the prosecutor of the Court of Justice of Catalonia has found “indications of criminal responsibility”, Soriano has yet to find himself the subject of any charge.
Laporta on Tuesday issued a statement claiming “the whole thing was based on a campaign to discredit the reputation of the president and managers of FC Barcelona in the period 2003-2010”. He added that “the prosecutor’s investigations would end up being filed” because his leading of the club was “responsible, transparent and absolutely correct”.
Soriano resigned at Barcelona in June 2008 following a vote of no confidence in the regime of the then-president Laporta, who was ousted by the current president, Sandro Rosell. Having helped transform Barcelona’s commercial operation during his five years at the club, Soriano is regarded as a success there.
Reports in the Catalan media suggest that Soriano gave a “declaration of honour” to Barcelona on his departure that he would not return to the club for personnel. The validity of this claim is unclear, but having recruited Begiristain, Barcelona’s former director of football, since arriving at the Etihad, Soriano has appointed a figure who was regarded as central to Barça’s success. Begiristain left the club before Soriano’s move to City.