Barcelona star Messi in hot water with Spanish authorities
Multi-millionaire Lionel Messi—widely recognised as the world’s best footballer—has faced the wrath of Spanish authorities earlier this week, after his tax fraud appeal was publicly quashed by the Spanish judicial system.
Officially charged with tax fraud spanning 2007 to 2009, Spanish authorities in July 2016 wrapped the knuckles of the footballing talent and his father-cum-financial manager Jorge on three counts of defrauding the country of due tax to the tune of €4.1 million, handing down to both suspended prison sentences (with Messi Jr. receiving 21 months and Messi Snr. receiving at first the same, but then reduced to 15 months in light of the fact that Messi’s father has since handed a large portion of owed tax over to authorities). Prosecutors in the preliminary case last July called upon evidence that Messi and his father utilised the much-maligned services of tax havens in Belize and Uruguay to unlawfully hide earnings generated from the star’s image rights, as well as funnelling money in shell companies in the UK and Switzerland. He refuted these claims in his rebuttal, with ESPN reporting that the footballer in his own defence told the court that he signed many documents without reading them thoroughly, and had visited a notary’s office to set up a company to handle his finances without his direct input; “I put my trust in my father, in the lawyers who decided to manage this thing”.
The guilty verdict was a quick and natural decision for the court. However, the case was far from over—with a multi-million-pound bank account as his disposal, Lionel Messi fought both convictions, forming an appeal almost immediately after the court case came to an end. However this week the Spanish Supreme Court has rejected his appeal, meaning that both Messi and his father’s sentences will be upheld. That said, the only light at the end of the tunnel for the footballer is that the sentences are suspended, meaning that the pair will more than likely avoid any jail time at all because the Spanish judicial system dictates that prison terms under 2 years can be served under probation.
When handing down the verdict that quashed Messi’s appeal nearly a year on from the original sentencing, the court said: “It defies logic to concede that someone who earns a large income does not know that he must pay taxes on it”. The presiding judge Mercedes Armas Galve was less forgiving, condemning the star’s actions in her sentencing statement: “[His] avoidable ignorance, which was derived from indifference, is not an error, and does not remover responsibility. The information that the accused avoided having was, in reality, within his reach via trustworthy and accessible sources”.
In addition to the black mark on their criminal records, both Messis have been fined €2 million apiece for their trouble, (although just pocket change for Messi, someone whose estimated net worth tips the scales at around $280 million). It does make you question why a man who counts his money in millions quibbled over paying just 1.4% of his overall income which would go towards vital public services in his home country such as policing, healthcare and infrastructure; but c’est la vie, as they say.
Ever the national hero, Messi’s blemished criminal record is not enough to tarnish his reputation in the footballing community. He certainly can do no wrong in the eyes of Barcelona Football Club, the club that has nurtured his prodigious talent from the tender age of 13. In a statement published on the club’s official website, FC Barcelona have pledged their unwavering allegiance to their star player, saying: “The club reiterates, once again, its full support for Leo Messi, his father Jorge Messi, and his family…FC Barcelona continues to be at the disposal of Leo Messi and his family to support him in whatever action he decides to take in defence of his honesty and his legal interests”.
Naturally, this isn't the first time a footballer has been embroiled in tax avoidance scandals—he’s not even the first Barcelona footballer to get into hot water; nor, I feel, will he be the last. As reported by The Guardian, “Messi is not the only Barcelona star to come under scrutiny for his tax affairs, as team-mate Neymar was recently fined almost £40m by a Brazilian court for evading tax on his sponsorship deals, while last year, Javier Mascherano received a 12-month prison sentence for tax avoidance, but also did not have to serve time”.
Football, they say, is a rich man’s game. However, whether the main players of this game will choose to share their wealthy by paying the taxes the country demands of them is a different question altogether…