“The law is equal for everyone, including the number one”

Sports minister says Lionel Messi must be presumed innocent until proved otherwise

Messi leaves the field after a 0-0 draw with Colombia on June 7.
Messi leaves the field after a 0-0 draw with Colombia on June 7. MARCOS BRINDICCI / REUTERS

Minister for Education, Culture and Sport José Ignacio Wert joined other political leaders in defending Barcelona soccer player Lionel Messi's right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty over charges that he allegedly defrauded Spain's tax system of 4.1 million euros.

But Wert did say the Argentinean star would receive no special treatment. "The law is equal for everyone, including the number one," he told reporters in Congress.

Asked about the damage the Messi case could do to the image of Spanish sport, the minister distinguished between the "sports scene" as a whole and the conduct of individual athletes, in this case as taxpayers, which "has to do with people, not with sport, nor with their sporting activity."

The spokesman for the CiU Catalan nationalist bloc in Congress, Josep Antoni Duran Lleida, said he did not want to offer an opinion on a lawsuit that has yet to be processed by any judge, but agreed that "whether they are called Messi, whether they are called Ronaldo or whatever they are called" their right to be presumed innocent has to be respected.

Jail could be avoided as long as an agreement with the tax office is reached"

Neither Messi nor his father, who was also named in the suit, is likely to face prison over the crime, which relates to a failure to declare part of the star's earnings from his image rights in tax declarations made between 2007 and 2009.

The case is considered a financial crime because the amount defrauded is over 120,000 euros: the limit that separates an infraction from a crime. If a judge considers that a crime has been committed, he could impose a jail sentence of between one and four years under article 305 of the Penal Code. The government could increase this to up to six years if the amount defrauded is over 600,000 euros or a criminal plot is involved.

However, normally such cases are resolved in the form of a fine. This could be up to six times the amount defrauded if proven – 24.6 million euros.

"It is a crime from the years 2007 and 2009 for which the previous code is applicable. The punishment would be between one and five years but it could be avoided as long as an agreement with the tax office is reached," the secretary general of the Union of Finance Ministry Technicians (GESTHA), José María Mollinedo, told the COPE radio network on Thursday. "If the player pays and admits his involvement, he could obtain a reduction in the minimum punishment, because of which he would not have to go to prison."