Lionel Messi handed 21-month tax fraud sentence but will not go to prison

Barcelona's Argentine soccer player Lionel Messi sits in court with his father Jorge Horacio Messi during their trial for tax fraud in Barcelona

Lionel Messi and his father Jorge have been sentenced to 21 months in prison for tax fraud, but the Barcelona forward is not expected to spend any time behind bars.

The court of Catalonia on Wednesday found that the Messis had evaded tax on Lionel’s image rights, with more than €4m owed in back payments. But because the court’s sentence was less than two years and neither Messi has a criminal record, neither will be sent to prison.

Prosecutors had alleged that tax havens in Belize and Uruguay were used to conceal earnings from image rights. But Messi said he “knew nothing” about his financial affairs, while his father said he was told by a legal adviser that the practice was legal.

“FC Barcelona gives all its support to Leo Messi and his father with relation to the sentence for tax evasion handed out by the Provincial Court in Barcelona today,”read a statement from the Spanish champions.

“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.

“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.”

The conviction is unlikely to hinder Messi’s football career, however, with the 29-year-old now free to attend Barcelona’s first day of pre-season training next week.

Now considered as a Spanish citizen because he moved to Barcelona at the age of 13, any potential move to play in the Premier League in the future should also not be an issue. Current guidelines regarding the issuing of work permits to non-EU citizens require all applicants to first obtain a governing body endorsement (GBE) based solely on a player’s sporting prowess before that is forwarded to the Home Office for assessment.

While some criminal offences – usually for prison sentences of more than 12 months– can result in an application being automatically rejected, the terms Messi’s conviction means that he is unlikely to be denied a permit, even if the terms of Brexit mean EU citizens are forced to apply in future.

The disputed tax payments date back to a period from 2007 to 2009, a time when Messi helped to transform Barça into the world’s best team. He has now, however, been fined €1.7m for three counts of tax fraud while his father has been given a €1.3m fine, although both men can appeal against these sentences at the supreme court.

The news comes just nine days after Messi surprisingly announced his retirementfrom international football after missing a penalty in Argentina’s defeat to Chile in the Copa América final.

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 avoided serving time.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

 

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