He is best known for poetry on the pitch, but when footballer Lionel Messi appeared in court accused of multimillion-euro tax fraud, his performance was decidedly more prosaic.
The Barcelona and Argentina forward denied any knowledge of the tax issues that led to the charges against him, saying that he signed documents without reading them because he trusted his father and the advisers responsible for managing his finances.
“I didn’t know anything,” Messi told the court in Barcelona on Thursday. “I only worried about playing football.”
Asked what he knew of the alleged €4.1m (£3.2m) fraud involving image rights and earnings, Messi repeatedly denied any knowledge. “Did you ever have a conversation about this with your lawyers?” asked the district attorney, Raquel Amado. “No, never.” “Did you ever ask your father if you had to pay tax?” “No, I never asked.”
“So, you signed all contracts with your eyes shut?” Amado persisted. “I signed them because I trust my father and it never entered my head that he would try to cheat me,” said Messi.
On the matter of his image rights, Messi said: “I only knew we arrived at agreements with sponsors for certain quantities of money and that in return I had to make commercials and be photographed, but I have no idea where the money went.”
Messi and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, arrived 10 minutes late on the third day of their trial, the first day they were obliged to attend. Crowds of photographers packed the courthouse steps and there were cheers – along with one shout of “Why don’t you go and play for Panama?” – as the five-time Fifa Ballon d’Or winner arrived.
Messi and his father sat together at a table in the middle of the courtroom, as is customary, with their backs to the public. Neither spoke to the other during the proceedings. More than 100 journalists were packed into the court, and the adjoining rooms were fitted with a video link.
Four tax office representatives spent the first two and half hours spelling out the charges in such detail that the presiding judge exclaimed with a sigh at one point: “We’re never going to get out of here.”
Later, when the state’s advocate began a question to Lionel Messi with a somewhat fawning “We appreciate you coming today,” the judge snapped: “Just ask the question!”
The Spanish tax authorities allege that €10.1m earned by Messi through image rights was secreted in a network of shell companies between 2007 and 2009 in order to avoid paying tax. When the district attorney asked Jorge Horacio Messi if he knew how the companies functioned, he replied: “What do I know? It’s all Chinese to me.”
He blamed his advisers and lawyers, saying: “I called them from time to time to see how things were going, but that’s all. The fact is, I don’t understand any of this.” He reiterated in his testimony that his son did not know the details of his contracts or the structures created in other countries to handle his income from image rights: “I didn’t think it was necessary to inform him of everything.”
The defence, which is asking for the charges to be dropped, has claimed that although Messi’s father handled his son’s business affairs, he wasn’t knowledgeable enough to set up the shell companies to defraud €4.1m. “He only had street-level knowledge,” an assessor said.
Staff from the law firm testified that Lionel Messi habitually signed contracts without looking at them.
Some of Messi’s teammates at Barcelona have also had run-ins with the tax authorities. In March, a court in Rio de Janeiro ordered the Brazilian Neymar Jr to pay $52m (£36m) in fines and back taxes. Earlier this year, Barcelona’s Argentinian defender Javier Mascherano was fined $850,000 and received a one-year suspended sentence for tax fraud.
In recent years, other players, among them Real Madrid and Spain internationals Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso, have had to settle with the tax authorities after being investigated for fraud.
The trial concludes on Friday, but both defendants have renounced their right to have the last word, and Messi is flying to the US to play for Argentina in the Copa América.
The state’s advocate is demanding a sentence of 22 months and 15 days, which, as it is less than two years, neither defendant would have to serve. However, they could be fined and made to forfeit possible future tax benefits. Both deny wrongdoing, and the money owed has already been paid back.
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