Football: Date set for Lionel Messi's appeal against tax fraud verdict

BARCELONA (REUTERS) - Spain's Supreme Court will consider Barcelona talisman Lionel Messi's appeal against a 21-month prison sentence for tax fraud on April 20, a court spokesperson said on Friday.

That date is three days before the "Clasico" clash between Barca and Real Madrid which could go a long way to deciding this season's La Liga title.

Argentinian Messi, five-time world player of the year, was found guilty by a Barcelona court last July on three counts of tax fraud between 2007 and 2009, resulting in a suspended 21-month prison sentence and fine of €2 million (S$3 million).

Messi's father Jorge was given the same sentence and ordered to pay a fine of €1.5 million. Spanish law is such that any sentence under two years for a non-violent crime rarely requires a defendant without previous convictions to serve jail time.

Messi, 29, and his father defrauded the Spanish tax office of almost €4.2 million from 2007-09 by using a web of shell companies to avoid taxes on income from the player's image rights.

Messi is the top scorer in La Liga this season and has netted more goals than any player in matches between Barcelona and their arch-rivals Real Madrid.

Real lead Barca by two points at the top of the league standings and have a game in hand.