I trusted my dad and lawyers, Messi tells court in tax fraud trial

Soccer great Lionel Messi tells a Barcelona court during his trail for over $4 million in tax evasion that he had no idea the shell companies his father had helped set up were illegal tax shelters.
Football star Lionel Messi (left) arriving at the courthouse in Barcelona yesterday with his father Jorge (behind) and his brother Rodrigo (right). The trial has cast a spotlight on the financial dealings of elite sport stars.
Football star Lionel Messi (left) arriving at the courthouse in Barcelona yesterday with his father Jorge (behind) and his brother Rodrigo (right). The trial has cast a spotlight on the financial dealings of elite sport stars.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Argentinian football star says he knew nothing about how his wealth was managed

BARCELONA • Argentinian football star Lionel Messi said yesterday that his father handled his finances and he knew nothing about how his wealth was managed as he took the stand at his tax fraud trial for the first time.

"I was playing football. I had no idea about anything," the 28-year-old told the Barcelona court hearing the case on the third day of the trial.

"I trusted my dad and my lawyers," he added.

Mr Messi, a record five-time world football player of the year, is at the centre of a tax evasion case that has cast a spotlight on the financial dealings of elite sport stars.

The star of Spanish champion Barcelona and his father Jorge Messi 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 in court shortly after 10am local time in a black SUV accompanied by a security team. Messi avoided the media gathering outside Barcelona's Justice Palace, rushing up the steps of the entrance with his father behind him.

Dozens of photographers and onlookers crowded behind metal barriers and a line of police officers who guarded the entrance of the court, trying to catch a glimpse of the player.

Most onlookers applauded but some jeered and criticised him.

"If he cheated, he has to be sentenced no matter how much of an idol and Ballon d'Or winner he is. This is €4 million (S$6.2 million) less to pay for hospitals, schools, firefighters and roads," Mr Jose Seco de Herrero, 25, said, referring to the Fifa award for world player of the year.

"Thief!" yelled one onlooker, as another cried: "Go play in Panama."

"On the pitch, he is the best, but if they have to try him and sentence him, they should do it, even if he is a footballer and is known around the world," said 25-year-old court attendee Eric Irias, who wore a Barcelona jersey.

Messi and his father sat side by side in silence as a team of four tax inspectors laid out their case in court for more than two hours.

The trial comes amid mounting global scrutiny of how the rich manage their incomes, with governments looking at information released in leaked legal documents dubbed the Panama Papers.

Messi, who was part of the Argentina team that finished as 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 did not 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.

Prosecutors filed a complaint in 2013 that the player and his father evaded €4.2 million in taxes over three years on endorsement payments from Adidas, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble and other firms.

The government is pursuing the case after the Messis paid €5 million, the amount prosecutors say they evaded, plus interest.

According to prosecutors, Jorge Messi oversaw the use of companies in Belize, Britain, 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 did not affect the potential existence of crimes. He also dismissed Messi's argument that he was not involved in money management decisions.

Whether he serves the prison sentence that state lawyers are demanding will be up to the judge.

Under Spanish law, individuals can avoid serving jail time for prison sentences of under two years if they have no criminal record and have sought to make amends for their offences.

The trial will wrap up today with closing arguments by lawyers from both sides.

No date was set for when the court will issue its ruling.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2016, with the headline 'I trusted my dad and lawyers, Messi tells court in tax fraud trial'. Print Edition | Subscribe