Lionel Messi and his father have been found guilty on three counts of tax fraud and sentenced to 21 months in prison Wednesday, according to multiple reports. Under Spanish law, however, it's considered highly unlikely the F.C. Barcelona superstar spends a minute inside a cell.
The court found that Messi and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, defrauded the Spanish tax department to the tune of 4.1 million euros ($4.5 million), the Associated Press reported. But that doesn't mean the star won't suit up for matches at Nou Camp. Under Spanish law, sentences under two years for first offenses are suspended. Neither Messi nor his father are expected go to prison. In fact, the Argentine attacker is free to attend Barcelona's first day of pre-season training next week.
The reigning winner of the Ballon d'Or, given to the world's top soccer player, was ordered to pay a 2 million euro fine ($2.2 million) and his father, 1.5 million euros ($1.7 million). That's a proverbial drop in the bucket to 29-year-old Messi. Forbes ranks him as the second-highest paid athlete in the world, pegging his combined income from salary and endorsements at $81.4 million.
Barcelona has already come to the defense of its star, who claimed that he wasn't aware of any wrongdoing and simply signed documents without reading through the content.
"FC Barcelona gives all its support to Leo Messi and his father with relation to the sentence for tax evasion handed out by the Provincial Court in Barcelona today," the club wrote in a statement. "The Club, in agreement with the Government prosecution service, considers that the player, who has corrected his position with the Spanish Tax Office, is in no way criminally responsible with regards to the facts underlined in this case. FC Barcelona continues to be at the disposal of Leo Messi and his family to support him in whatever action he decides to take in defense of his honesty and his legal interests."
Tax inspectors testified that they found evidence Messi's father used companies set up in foreign countries to reduce taxes on his son's image rights, the AP reported. Messi's father said he was told it was legal by an advisor.
The conviction comes fewer than ten days after Messi announced he would retire from international soccer. He missed a penalty kick during a shootout as Argentina lost to Chile in the Copa America tournament. Reports have begun to surface, however, that Messi — considered one of the best players in history — could be reconsidering the decision.