Leo Messi Tells Court Probing Tax Case He Focused on His Soccer

  • State attorneys says Messi evaded taxes for three years
  • Player’s father is also charged as he managed the money

Barcelona soccer star Lionel Messi said he focused on his playing and allowed his father handle his business affairs as he made his defense Thursday in a tax evasion case that is casting a spotlight on the financial dealings of elite athletes.

The record five-time world player of the year and his father Jorge are accused of failing to pay taxes on image rights, and state attorneys are demanding sentences of about 22 months for each as well as the payment of the taxes and costs. The Messis arrived at court shortly after 10 a.m. local time in a black SUV accompanied by a security team.

The trial comes as global scrutiny mounts into how the rich manage their income, with governments looking at information released in leaked legal documents dubbed the “Panama Papers.” Messi said he had signed multiple contracts after turning 18 involving sponsors and sport campaigns and argued that he was unaware of the tax and financial details of the documents he signed.

“I played football, I had full trust in my dad and the advisers -- the truth is I didn’t have the slightest idea,” Messi said. “I knew that we were signing deals with sponsors and that I had to do photo-shoots and stuff like that -- I had no idea about the money.”

Messi, who was part of the Argentina team that finished runners-up in the 2014 World Cup, looked to be in the clear two years ago when a Spanish prosecutor recommended that charges be dismissed because the player didn’t make decisions on his own financial arrangements. The request to clear Messi was thrown out by a judge in Barcelona, who sent the case to court. An appeal by Messi was also rejected.

In his testimony, his father Jorge said he had tried to handle his son’s affairs after the two arrived in Barcelona to start his professional soccer career in 2001. While he admitted he had been in charge of his son’s business deals, Jorge said he followed the advice of professionals and never sought any preferable tax treatment.

Messi avoided the media gathering outside Barcelona’s Justice Palace, rushing through the entrance’s steps with his father behind him. The two sat in court side by side in silence as a team of four tax inspectors laid out their case for more than two hours.

“Since we got to Barcelona, I’ve tried to facilitate his life,” said Jorge Messi. “Some of these things -- the image rights -- it was like Chinese to me. I was advised on this.”

Prosecutors filed a complaint in 2013 that the 28-year-old player and his father evaded 4.2 million euros ($4.7 million) in taxes over three years on endorsement payments from Adidas AG, PepsiCo Inc., Procter & Gamble Co. and other companies.

The government is pursuing the case after the Messis paid 5 million euros, the amount prosecutors say they evaded, plus interest. According to prosecutors, Jorge Messi oversaw the use of companies in Belize, the U.K., Switzerland and Uruguay to divert money away from the Spanish tax authorities.

The judge who sent the case to trial said in his ruling that the fact that the Messis agreed to pay back taxes doesn’t affect the potential existence of crimes. He also dismissed Messi’s argument that he wasn’t involved in money management decisions.

Whether he serves the prison sentence state lawyers are demanding will be up to the judge. Under Spanish law, individuals can avoid serving jail time for a sentence under two years if they have no criminal record and have sought to make amends for their offense.

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