In what has become a scandalous recent trend in the world of sports, Lionel Messi has become the latest high-profile soccer superstar to deal with Spain’s tough tax system and its legal enforcement. Messi’s tax trial began earlier this week in Barcelona, but the soccer legend finally had his day in court on Thursday, June 2, 2016.
On the stand Messi reiterated the theme his attorneys have been illustrating over the course of the week — that he had zero knowledge of the financial transactions around his earnings and he signed key documents without reading them because he trusted his father and the advisers he paid to manage his finances. Messi told the judge Thursday that “I just play football” and when it came to endorsements and advertisements he “didn’t know how his money arrived or where it was going.” His father, Jorge, supported this notion testifying that his son never knew the details of contracts or the structure of his income and that Messi would only show up to sign the documents. Earlier in the week employees for the legal firm his family retained testified that all financial and contractual supervision was done by Messi’s father and that Messi never saw the documents apart from signing where he was told. Moreover, an expert testified that some of the signatures purported to be Messi’s were actually falsified further building the case that Messi does not monitor his contracts and lets his father and advisors take care of everything.
The Spanish revenue service accepted the soccer superstars argument and dismissed the case; however, another sector the government decided to continue forward with charges. Prosecutors for that sector maintain that Messi and his father knowingly used tax havens in Belize, Uruguay, and Switzerland to avoid paying €4.1 million on earnings from image rights deals between 2007 and 2009. In addition, they argue that even if Messi was unfamiliar with the tax issues which led to fraud charges against him, there is enough evidence that he consented to a financial structure which had him avoiding taxes for years. As a result they have called for a 22-month sentence.
A ruling and sentencing expected sometime next week. It is unlikely he will receive the requested jail time, although a fine and forfeiture of the alleged tax benefits is likely. An interesting additional note is that recently Messi was named in the “Panama Papers” probe of international offshore accounts avoiding taxes, but no charges have been filed against him in relation to that scandal.