MADRID (AFP) – Barcelona star Lionel Messi’s lawyers said Friday they “firmly believe” the Argentine player, who is accused of avoiding paying tax on income generated from the sale of his image rights, is innocent.
The 25-year-old four-time World Player of the Year and his father Jorge Horacio were ordered by a Spanish court Thursday to appear for questioning in September as part of an investigation into alleged tax fraud.
Spanish financial crimes prosecutors accuse Messi and his father of defrauding the tax office of over four million euros ($5 million, £3.4 million) in income related to the use of his image from 2006-2009.
“We firmly believe in the innocence of our client,” Messi’s lawyers office, Juarez Veciana, said in a statement.
“We are confident that we will be able to clarify this disparity in criteria and we regret that the honour of our client, who scrupulously complies with Spanish legislation, is being questioned,” it added.
“We declare that our customer will pay any amount that he is eventually found to owe but we believe that our client has already paid what he was legally obliged.”
The accusations of tax fraud are a huge blow to the prestige of Messi, who has long been seen as a more humble figure than most top-class footballers — in particular his fierce Real Madrid rival Cristiano Ronaldo.
If convicted Messi and his father could face a jail term of between one to five years and a fine equal to six times the amount that was found to have been defrauded, said Carlos Cruzado, a lawyer and president of Treasury Ministry trade union GESTHA.
But if within two months of receiving their summons to be questioned in court they admit they are guilty and pay the amount they are accused of defrauding tax officials, the judge can issue a jail sentences of just three months and a much smaller fine, he told AFP.
Defendants who receive sentences of less than two years in Spain generally do not go to jail unless they have previous convictions
Messi and his father aimed to deceive the state by ceding the player’s image rights to companies based in tax havens such as Belize and Uruguay so they would pay no tax in Spain, according to the prosecutor’s complaint filed at a court in Gava, a Mediterranean coastal town near Barcelona, on June 12.
The prosecutor’s complaint also alleged Messi and his father drew up deals related to his image rights in Britain and Switzerland, ensuring that the income went straight to the tax havens without any tax being paid.
The father was accused of being the brains behind the scheme, allegedly setting it up in 2005 before his son turned 18 on June 24 of that year.
The prosecutor said Messi later agreed with his father’s tactics so that he would avoid any taxes on income from the use of his image rights during the period.
The income related to his image rights included contracts with FC Barcelona, Banco Sabadell, Danone, Adidas, Pepsi-Cola, Procter Gamble and Kuwait Food Company.