Spanish Tax Agency aware Messi hid revenue for two years before informing prosecutors

Defense team at Barcelona trial highlights “irregularities” in case against soccer star

Jesús García Bueno
Leo Messi's defense team arrive at court in Barcelona on Tuesday.
Leo Messi's defense team arrive at court in Barcelona on Tuesday.Massimiliano Minocri (EL PAÍS)

Spain’s Tax Agency inspected Leo Messi’s accounts on 20 occasions over the course of two years during its investigation into possible fraud by the Barcelona soccer player.

During the course of this time it discovered he had pretended to cede his image rights to a company based in the tiny Central American country of Belize.

On the first day of Messi’s trial in Barcelona, lawyers accused the tax authorities of acting misleadingly, given that after the second interview with him in 2011, they already had sufficient evidence to report the case to the public prosecutor’s office, something inspectors did not do until 2013.

Messi and his father are accused by the Spanish Tax Agency of defrauding the government of €4.2 million between 2007 and 2009

Over the following two years, Messi and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, who handled the player’s financial affairs, continued to provide tax inspectors with information that ended up incriminating them further, says his legal team, arguing that this amounted to a breach of their basic right “to not incriminate themselves”.

The judge overseeing the hearing dismissed the argument, saying any such “irregularities” would not influence the case.

Messi was not required to be in court for the first day of the hearing, but will appear on Thursday, with his father, to give evidence. A verdict and any sentencing are not expected until next week.

The case centers on revenue from the Argentinean international’s image rights and a web of shell companies allegedly used to evade taxes on income from those rights. Messi and his father are accused by the Spanish Tax Agency of defrauding the government of €4.2 million between 2007 and 2009. According to the prosecutors’ office, revenue was hidden using shell companies in Uruguay, Belize, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Messi and his father face jail terms of up to 22 months if found guilty, but would not spend time behind bars, as Spanish legislation establishes two years as the threshold after which prison terms must be enforced. Messi and his father paid €5 million to the tax authorities as a “corrective” measure after being formally investigated in June 2013.

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A resident in Barcelona since 2000, Messi became a Spanish citizen in 2005. He is 10th on Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s highest-earning athletes over the past decade, with an income of $350 million.

With the Copa America beginning Saturday, Messi flew back to Spain after Argentina’s warm-up match against Honduras last weekend while the rest of the squad traveled to the United States to prepare for the tournament. Messi will join his teammates after the trial ends, just four days before Argentina plays its first match against defending champion Chile.

Messi is the latest high-profile player to be targeted by the Spanish tax authorities: Neymar, Javier Mascherano, Adriano and Xabi Alonso have also been subjected to audits.

English version by Nick Lyne.

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