ROME (AFP) - Diego Maradona announced on Friday that he has asked the European Union (EU) to step in as arbitrator amid an ongoing feud with the Italian authorities over an alleged 39 million euros (S$67.4 million) in unpaid taxes.
The Argentine football legend is accused of building up the huge tax bill during a spell playing in Italy where he led Napoli to their only two league titles, at the end of the 1980s and start of the 1990s.
In 2005, he was ordered to pay 37.2 million euros, 23.5 million euros of which were interest on the debt.
However Italian prosecutors resumed the trial from scratch in 2011 in what was seen as a victory by Maradona's lawyer in Italy, Angelo Pisani.
Italy clearly wants Maradona to pay up, but after announcing his case would be taken up at the EU by European deputy Crescenzio Rivellini, who belongs to the PDL party run by Silvio Berlusconi, Maradona claimed his innocence.
"I'm being persecuted in Italy," Maradona said Friday as he spoke to media at the Rome offices of the EU.
"I'm not a fraudster. I don't have 40 million euros, I haven't even earned that much during my career."
Maradona's tax woes resurfaced last October when he was served with papers over the alleged unpaid 39-million-euro debt while in Milan for a sponsored event.
A source at the Equitalia tax recovery agency said that move had simply been formal procedure since the papers only have a 180-day validity and therefore have to be renewed whenever Maradona is in Italy.
Maradona added Friday he would make himself "available to hold talks" with Equitalia.
Rivellini, who describes himself as "Neapolitan and fan of Napoli (football team)", claims he had taken up the case to "get justice for the Italian victims of tax authorities who are far too intrusive".
He added that Equitalia "wants to make an example of Maradona".
Maradona's lawyer, Pisani, said: "Diego is innocent" because he has "never been found guilty of tax fraud. If the authorities suspect wrongdoing, it's up to them to show the proof".
However, Pisani added: "If there's been a mistake, we're ready to pay. If we owe 40 million, we will pay 40 million."
According to Rivellini, "the EU will announce a decision within four to six weeks" and "Diego will go to Brussels for the announcement".
Maradona scored 115 goals in 259 games with Napoli, where he is still adored having steered the team to league titles in 1987 and 1990.
He also led Argentina to the World Cup in 1986.