Just four days after lifting the Champions League trophy, Barcelona star Lionel Messi has learned that he will have to stand trial for alleged tax fraud. On Wednesday, a Spanish high court rejected an appeal from the four-time world player of the year that he should be granted impunity for being unaware of how his finances were being managed.
The 27-year-old and his father Jorge Messi face allegations of withholding 4.1 million euros ($4.6 million) from the Spanish tax authorities between 2007 and 2009. In Sept. 2013, the pair appeared in court in the Catalan town of Gava, where it was ruled that Lionel Messi should face trial over allegedly benefiting from setting up a network of companies in Belize and Uruguay to sell image rights and avoid tax, whether or not he was aware of it. While that decision was appealed, it has now been rejected, meaning arguably the greatest soccer player of all time, at the peak of his powers, will be going to trial. Although a spell in jail is a possibility, it is believed to be highly unlikely. Reports suggest that Messi could face a one-year suspended jail sentence and a fine of up to 21 million euros ($23.7 million) if found guilty.
Messi’s defense team has long argued that the forward had “never devoted a minute of his life to reading, studying or analyzing” the contracts, reports Spain’s El Pais newspaper. Yet judges have stated that, while the scheme allegedly began when he was a minor, Messi ratified the contracts when he turned 18 and was also listed as the sole administrator of one of the companies.
The Spanish authorities have pursued the case despite Messi paying 5 million euros ($5.7 million) to cover the money owed plus interest. That has led to accusations from Messi’s camp that he has been unfairly targeted by the Madrid-based central tax office. Indeed, it has been portrayed in some quarters as a further example of unfair treatment against the region of Catalonia.
“There are other elite athletes who are in the same situation, have had tax problems and they’ve all been settled administratively,” sources close to Messi told Spanish publication El Confidencial last November. “For example that was the case with [then Real Madrid players] Iker Casillas and Xabi Alonso and [tennis star] Rafa Nadal.
“Messi is the only one who faces legal proceedings that could land him in jail.”
At the time, there was even a threat that Messi could leave Barcelona and Spain because of the perceived persecution. The initial legal problems coincided with Messi enduring a dip in performances on the pitch, but he has returned to his sparkling best over the past few months. The Argentinean finished the season with 58 goals, helping Barcelona to win a treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League titles. Messi is currently preparing to lead Argentina at the Copa America in Chile.