BARCELONA: Barcelona striker Lionel Messi and his father were sentenced Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) to 21 months in jail for tax fraud by a court in Spain where the taxman has set its sights on footballers.
But these prison sentences are likely to be suspended as it is common in Spain for first offences for non-violent crimes carrying a sentence of less than two years.
The Barcelona court found the Argentina international and his father Jorge Horacio Messi guilty of using companies in Belize, Britain, Switzerland and Uruguay to avoid paying taxes on 4.16 million euros of Messi’s income earned from his image rights from 2007-09.
The income related to Messi’s image rights allegedly hidden includes endorsement deals with Danone, Adidas, Pepsi-Cola, Procter & Gamble or the Kuwait Food Company.
Messi, 29, a five time FIFA World Player winner, was fined 2.09 million euros while his father was fined 1.6 million euros.
They can appeal the decision to Spain’s Supreme Court.
Both Messi and his father, who has managed his son’s affairs since he was a child, were charged with three counts of tax fraud.
Messi told the court during the four-day trial that wrapped up on June 4 that he trusted his father with his finances and “knew nothing” about how his wealth was managed.
Prosecutors had asked for Messi to be absolved, arguing there was no evidence that the player was aware of how his income was managed.
But the state attorney representing tax authorities in the trial, Mario Maza, said he found it unlikely that Messi knew nothing about the situation.
“There is no deliberate ignorance here, it’s fraud and that’s all there is to it, because he didn’t want to pay his taxes,” he said.
“It’s like a crime boss. At the very top is the bigwig who doesn’t want to know about the details.”
The court agreed, arguing in its ruling that Messi “had decided to remain in ignorance”.
“Despite all the opportunities available to the player to show interest in how his rights were managed, he did not,” the court added.
Messi and his father made a voluntary payment of 5.0 million euros — equal to the amount of the alleged unpaid taxes plus interest — in August 2013 after being formally investigated.
After the court delivered its verdict, Barcelona issued a statement “giving all its support to Leo Messi and his father”.
“The club, in agreement with the government prosecution service, considers that the player, who has corrected his position with the Spanish tax office, is in no way criminally responsible with regards to the facts underlined in this case,” it added.
Messi is Barca’s all-time leading goalscorer. During his time with the club, he has won the European Champions League on four occasions and eight Spanish league titles.