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Messi, Pique have tense meeting with Barcelona chief after social media row - sources

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Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu met with the club's leading players on Tuesday in an attempt to cool rising tensions after it was alleged a third-party company was paid to discredit players, club legends and presidential candidates, among others.

Sources explained to ESPN that Bartomeu met with the four captains -- Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Sergi Roberto -- in a tense meeting which lasted for 35 minutes. First-team coach Quique Setien was also present.

In the meeting, Bartomeu insisted that the club had nothing to do with a series of social media posts made by the company I3 Ventures, which administers a number of Facebook and Twitter accounts, attacking people related to the club, including Messi and Pique.

The players appreciated the president's attempt at an explanation, but sources said they remain uneasy about the whole situation.

The same sources add that Bartomeu's future is now more dependent on those same players than ever. His mandate runs until 2021 and poor results in upcoming matches away at Napoli and Real Madrid would add to the growing calls for him to call elections this summer. As this is his second term, he will not be able to run in the next election.

Bartomeu had earlier announced that the club rescinded their contract with I3 Ventures following the revelation of the social media posts. Speaking in an event at Camp Nou, he said the company had been hired to monitor social media activity involving the club and stressed he had no knowledge of any smear campaigns against people related to Barca.

"It is completely false," he stressed. "We will defend ourselves by whatever means necessary and will go after anyone that falsely accuses us."

SER Catalunya had first reported on Monday that I3 Ventures had been contracted by the club with the initial idea of helping to clean up Bartomeu's image.

Sources subsequently told ESPN that the club had been working with I3 Ventures since 2017. The Argentine company, which has bases in Madrid and Barcelona, received just under €1 million from its relationship with the Catalan club.

Among the posts revealed by SER Catalunya, Pique was criticised for his involvement in organising the Davis Cup, while Messi and his wife, Antonella Roccuzzo, were also targeted. However, on many other occasions, campaigns were run in defence of Messi, praising the club's record goal scorer.

Club legends Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol and Pep Guardiola were also discredited by accounts run by I3, as were presidential candidates Agusti Benedito and Victor Font.

Benedito responded on Monday when he said he would file a lawsuit against Bartomeu and his board of directors if the allegations were proven.

Font, meanwhile, has described the board of director's actions as "morally bankrupt" and called for immediate elections. 

It's the second time in two weeks Bartomeu has had to deal with an off-the-pitch problem. Earlier in February, he held clear-the-air talks with Messi and sporting director Eric Abidal after the two engaged in a war of words regarding who was responsible for ex-coach Ernesto Valverde's sacking.

The news also comes on the heels of Barcelona's Twitter account being hacked on Saturday by a group called OurMine that declared Neymar would be returning to the club.

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