Lionel Messi fans have had plenty to be concerned about of late. On Friday, Messi went down with an injury to his back during a friendly against Honduras (the official diagnosis: deep lumbar hematoma). And today, the long-awaited trial on tax fraud charges against Messi and his father, Jorge, began in Spain.
The trial stems from charges filed in 2013 when Spanish tax authorities alleged that Messi’s father used a series of shell companies in tax havens to shield royalties and other licensing income from tax. In the scheme, which is said to date back to 2005, authorities claim that income from lucrative contracts with such companies as Pepsi-Cola, Procter & Gamble, and Adidas was funneled offshore to Belize and Uruguay through an elaborate maze of entities and countries to avoid paying income tax in Spain.
Originally born in Argentina, Messi became a Spanish citizen in 2005. Messi, now 28 (he’ll turn 29 in a few weeks) was a minor for much of 2005. He allegedly signed documents related to licensing revenues after he turned 18, subsequently ratifying documents that were signed on his behalf. The specific years initially targeted during the tax investigation were 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. The complaint, as filed, focuses on the years 2007 through 2009. You can read the original complaint here – in Spanish (downloads as a pdf).
Messi and his father have routinely denied all wrongdoing, with Messi saying in July of 2013:
I never take care of that stuff myself and neither does my father. We have our lawyers and our wealth managers to take care of that and we trust them and they will sort this out. The truth is that I don’t have a clue about all this and that is why we have people taking care of it.
Shortly after the charges were made public, however, Messi took steps to clear the tax debt, making a “corrective payment” of €5 million ($6.57 million U.S.). That did not, however, discourage authorities from moving forward with the charges.
The trial is expected to last three days. Neither Messi nor his father attended today’s hearing, which lasted over an hour. Messi’s lawyer, Javier Sánchez-Vera, explained to the court that “The intention of Mr. Lionel was to attend the plenary hearing, but he has suffered an injury,” referencing the footballer’s recent incident on the pitch. Messi is expected to appear in court on Thursday when he is slated to testify.
Messi is one of the most successful soccer players in the world, garnering five Ballon d’Or wins and eight La Liga titles. Last year, he earned $74 million in salary and endorsements, landing him at #13 spot on Forbes’ Celebrity 100 in 2015 and the #4 spot on Forbes’ list of World’s Highest Paid Athletes (behind boxers Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao and fellow footballer Cristiano Ronaldo).
Messi’s team, FC Barcelona, is thought to be worth $3.55 billion. Forbes ranks the team at #2 on its list of the World’s Most Valuable Soccer Teams – just behind La Liga rival Real Madrid. The team has its own tax woes: in 2015, a Spanish Court found that there was enough evidence to force the team to trial on tax fraud charges related to signing Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior (known simply as Neymar). Club president Josep Bartomeu and former club president Alexandre “Sandro” Rosell were also charged in the scandal. The team has denied any wrongdoing.
In January of 2016, another Barcelona player, Javier Mascherano, pleaded guilty to two counts of tax fraud in Spain. Mascherano admitted that he failed to pay taxes on earnings for the years 2011 and 2012 which earned him a fine and jail time (he’ll likely avoid the jail time).
Messi and his father have been charged under Article 305 of the Spanish Criminal Code. If convicted, they could each face a prison sentence and be fined several million euros, though, as with Mascherano, it’s largely assumed that neither will serve any real jail time.