BARCELONA (AFP) – Argentina football star Lionel Messi said Thursday he trusted his father with his finances and “knew nothing” about how his wealth was managed as he took the stand at his tax fraud trial.
“I was playing football. I had no idea about anything,” the five-time World Player of the Year told the Barcelona court hearing the case.
“I trusted my dad and my lawyers,” the 28-year-old, who wore a black suit and tie, added during the roughly 20 minutes he was questioned.
Messi and his father Jorge Horacio Messi are accused of using a chain of fake companies in Belize and Uruguay to avoid paying taxes on 4.16 million euros (S$6.3 million) of Messi’s income earned through the sale of his image rights from 2007-09.
The income related to Messi’s image rights that was allegedly hidden and includes endorsement deals with Banco Sabadell, Danone, Adidas, Pepsi-Cola, Procter & Gamble and the Kuwait Food Company.
“All I knew was that we signed agreements with certain sponsors, for ‘X’ amount of money and that I had to do adverts, photos and those things but about the money and where it went I knew nothing,” Messi told the court.
The Barcelona forward and his defence team have long argued that Messi’s father handled the footballer’s finances without reporting to him, and the striker was not aware of any wrongdoing.
Both Messi and his father, who has managed his son’s affairs since he was a child, have been charged with three counts of tax fraud.
Spanish prosecutors are seeking a jail sentence of 22-and-a-half months for them if they are found guilty, plus fines equivalent to the amount that was allegedly defrauded.
But any such sentence would likely be suspended as is common in Spain for first offences carrying a sentence of less than two years.
Messi and his father made a voluntary payment of 5 million euros – equal to the amount of the alleged unpaid taxes plus interest – in August 2013 after being formally investigated, which is expected to mitigate any sentence if they are found guilty.
The player’s former tax advisers told the court on Wednesday that the football star never handled his own wealth management and that they only dealt with Messi’s father.
“I always tried to make his life easy,” Jorge Horacio Messi told the court on Thursday when he took the stand just before his son.
“All of this was like basic Chinese to me, I did not understand anything. I asked (the advisers) to look after our assets...and they told us this was the best way.”
Dozens of photographers and onlookers crowded behind metal barriers and a line of police that guarded the entrance of the court to catch a glimpse of the player for the hearing.
Most applauded but some jeered and criticised the player.
“If he cheated, he has to be sentenced no matter how much of an idol and Ballon d’Or winner he is. These are four million euros less to pay for hospitals, schools, firefighters, roads,” Jose Seco de Herrero, 25, told AFP.
“Thief!,” yelled out one onlooker. “Go play in Panama,” cried out another.
The tax fraud trial comes at a time of simmering voter anger over steep government cuts to health and social spending, as the government struggles to bring Spain’s public deficit down.
“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 Eric Irias, 25, who came to the court wearing a Barcelona jersey which he bought a day earlier.
Messi and his father will not attend the fourth and final day of the trial on Friday when lawyers will make their closing arguments.
The player is set to jet off after his court appearance to the United States where Argentina take on Copa America defending champions Chile in their first game of the tournament in California on Monday.
No date was set for when the court will issue its ruling.