Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu said on Tuesday the club has terminated its contract with a company accused of criticising current and former players, including Lionel Messi, on social media.
“This morning I personally gave instructions to terminate the contract,” Bartomeu said at a journalism awards ceremony.
According to Spanish radio station Cadena Ser Cataluna on Monday, Barca hired PR company, I3 Ventures, to improve the image of Bartomeu and the club’s board online.
The company oversaw “dozens” of accounts attacking the likes of Messi, Gerard Pique, Xavi Hernandez, Pep Guardiola and Carles Puyol on Facebook and Twitter.
Among the messages the report cited is one expressing anger towards Messi for his delay in signing a new contract and another questioning Pique’s involvement in the Davis Cup.
In a statement on Monday, Barcelona denied that it was behind the messages and Bartomeu reiterated that stance on Tuesday.
“Barca has never hired a service to discredit anyone,” he said. “Not a player, not a former player, nor any politician, manager, president or former president.”
Bartomeu added, “That is flatly false. We will defend ourselves where necessary on this issue, by all means.”
Barcelona had already threatened legal action against any media organisations that “continue to implicate the club in this type of practice”.
“Let one thing be clear,” Bartomeu continued. “To the question: Have we commissioned the monitoring of social networks? The answer is yes.
“To the question: Have we commissioned to discredit people or institutions through social networks? The answer is no and we will take action against all those who accuse us of that.”
The controversy increases the pressure on Bartomeu and the Barcelona board ahead of presidential elections due next year, and following a period of political turmoil at the club.
The board were clumsy in their sacking of coach Ernesto Valverde last month, when an approach to Xavi Hernandez was leaked while Valverde was still in post.
And two weeks ago, Messi engaged in a public spat with the club’s technical secretary Eric Abidal, who claimed the players were the main cause of Valverde’s removal.
The timing of this latest controversy is also a potential distraction ahead of a crucial week for the team.
Barcelona play Eibar at home in La Liga on Saturday before facing Napoli away in the Champions League and then Real Madrid in the league at the Santiago Bernabeu.