BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — The president of Spanish champion Barcelona resigned on Thursday to fight criminal accusations he misappropriated funds from the signing of Brazil forward Neymar.
Sandro Rosell is facing a lengthy legal battle after a judge in Madrid ruled on Wednesday he will hear a lawsuit that alleges the real cost of Neymar's transfer from Santos last year was hidden.
"I don't want unfair attacks to negatively affect (the) management or the image of the club. This is why I think my time here has come to an end," Rosell said, while insisting for a second time this week that the deal to bring Neymar to Barcelona was legal.
Neymar, who is the poster boy of Brazil's team going into the World Cup on home soil in June, joined for 57 million euros (then $74 million) in June, according to Rosell.
The legal action, which was brought by club member Jordi Cases, alleges the real cost of Neymar's transfer was closer to 95 million euros ($129 million) and that false contracts hid the real value of the move. The criminal offense of misappropriation of funds is punishable by up to six years in prison.
The 49-year-old Rosell, a former Nike executive, said confidentiality agreements prevented Barcelona from revealing the exact amount received by Santos, and the three companies — DIS, TEISA and N&N — who owned shares of his rights. The lawsuit does not accuse Rosell of taking money from the deal.
The case prompted Barcelona's board to call an emergency meeting, and Rosell announced he was quitting after more than two hours of deliberations.
The transfer controversy is a blot on the reputation of a Catalan football institution that has long prided itself on being "more than a club" and is owned by its more than 160,000 members, who elect a president and executive board.
And Barcelona, while top of the Spanish league, enters a period of uncertainty as it seeks to retain its domestic title and win the Champions League for the first time since 2011.
Rosell, who was elected in 2010, said vice president Josep Bartomeu will take his place and complete the presidential term that expires in 2016.
Under three full seasons of Rosell's presidency, Barcelona maintained its winning run started under Joan Laporta with another two Spanish league trophies to go with the Champions League title in 2011 and the Copa del Rey in 2012.
Rosell said he was leaving to reduce the stress on him and his family and lamented what he described as attacks from both outside and within the club, despite its continued success on the pitch.
"Through this period of success, my family and I have suffered attacks that have made me wonder if being president means putting my family at risk and in anguish," Rosell said.
As he resigned, Rosell trumpeted his role in ensuring "the best players in the world wear the Barcelona jersey." Rosell oversaw the signing of Neymar, Cesc Fabregas, Alexis Sanchez, Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba, and Alex Song to further strengthen a team built around star forward Lionel Messi.
Messi himself is going through his own legal difficulties. The Argentina forward and his father, Jorge, are waiting to hear if they will face charges in a tax fraud case after answering a judge's questions last year about allegations they avoided 4 million euros ($5.3 million) in back taxes.
Rosell steered Barcelona through uncertainty last season when treatment for throat cancer kept coach Tito Vilanova away for several months. Vilanova had to step down at the end of last season through ill health and Gerardo Martino was brought in to take charge.
But while helping to establish Barcelona as Europe's most successful team, Rosell also upset some members by putting paying sponsors on the front of Barca's shirts for the first time by striking deals with Qatar Foundation and Qatar Airways.
Rosell has faced accusations about his business dealings away from the Camp Nou, with accusations in Brazil he illegally benefited from a friendly organized by his marketing company in 2008.
By leaving his powerful job at Barcelona, Rosell also loses seats on influential committees within world football on FIFA and UEFA.