Barcelona soccer titan Lionel Messi, one of the most famous and richest athletes in the world, appeared in a Spanish court to face and answer tax fraud charges Thursday.
As the trial enters its third and final day, Messi and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, who manages the Argentina star’s finances, are accused of defrauding the Spanish government of $4.6 million between 2007 and 2009.
Spanish authorities allege Messi and his father used tax shelters in Belize and Uruguay to hide income from his image rights deals with such global brands as Adidas, Pepsi-Cola, and Proctor and Gamble. Authorities are seeking jail time and heavy fines, though if found guilty a prison sentence doesn’t seem likely for the soccer star.
Both Messi and his father have denied wrongdoing, while the player has said he had no knowledge of the contracts he was signing and that his father handled all financial affairs.
The charges were initially filed in 2013 and Messi and his father paid $6.75 million in back taxes plus interest to the Spanish government.
Six witnesses, including ones linked to law firm Juarez & Associates, which handled Messi’s image rights at that time, reportedly told the court Wednesday that Jorge Messi and Rodrigo Messi, Messi’s brother, were responsible for the contracts and not the soccer star.
"The mediator was always Jorge Messi or, occasionally, Rodrigo Messi, but it was never Leo [Messi]," Iñigo de Loyola Juárez of the law firm said on the stand according to Marca.
"[Leo] Messi sometimes came to the agreements, but he never made any decision," Angel Juarez, Iñigo’s brother, told the court. "All of the documents were always asked for by Jorge Messi. I don't even have Leo's phone number or email."
Angel Juarez also stated that Jorge Messi "knew tax was not paid in Spain on the money earned in Uruguay."
Neither Messi nor his father were obligated to attend the trial until Thursday in order to give testimony. The five-time Player of the Year was instead expected to prepare with Argentina’s national team for the upcoming Copa America Centenario tournament in the United States. Argentina face Chile on Monday, and Messi has stated that the tournament is "an important competition."
The trial comes on the heels of Messi’s alleged involvement in the "Panama Papers" scandal, which linked a number of high-profile politicians and others with shell companies set up in the Central American country to hide money and avoid taxes.