MADRID— Lionel Messi, one of the highest paid athletes in the world, was accused by a prosecutor Wednesday of defrauding the Spanish government of €4.16 million ($5.53 million) in unpaid taxes on income from companies that used his image to promote themselves.
The prosecutor's lawsuit said the 25-year-old Argentine soccer superstar, who plays for FC Barcelona, had arranged for €10.17 million earned from image rights between 2007 and 2009 to be paid directly to shell companies in Belize and Uruguay. The suit alleged Messi later received the money through British and Swiss channels and failed to declare it as income.
Messi's father, Jorge Horacio Messi, who has helped manage his career, was also named in the case. The suit said he had helped set up the alleged tax-avoidance scheme in 2005, before his son turned 18.
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Under Spanish law, an investigative judge must now decide whether to bring formal charges against the player and his father, who reside in Spain. That decision could come quickly, but such cases typically drag on for years if they go to trial. Messi and his father could face two to six years in prison if convicted on each of the three counts of tax fraud of which they're accused.
In a post on his verified Facebook FB -0.42% page, Messi said he learned of the lawsuit through media reports shortly after it was filed in Gava, the seaside resort close to Barcelona where he lives.
"We are surprised about the news, because we have never committed any infringement," the post read. "We have always fulfilled all our tax obligations, following the advice of our tax consultants who will take care of clarifying this situation."
Marca, Spain's biggest-selling sports newspaper, quoted the player's father as saying he and his son were innocent of any wrongdoing and "everything is going to be cleared up."
A spokesman for FC Barcelona, where Messi has played for more than a decade, first for junior teams and then as part of the professional squad, declined to comment. The spokesman said he was unaware of whether Messi had legal representation in the case.
Messi, who also plays for Argentina's national team, has been voted as the world's best soccer player for the past four years. His salary is not public, but Forbes estimated this year that his current annual income from playing soccer, excluding endorsements, is more than $20 million. He recently extended his contract with Spanish champion Barcelona to 2018.
The player also receives income from commercial sponsors. The prosecutor, Raquel Amado, said in the suit that most of the income the player allegedly failed to report came from FC Barcelona and his main sponsor, Adidas ADS.XE +1.43% AG.
Adidas issued a statement that it was aware of the potential Spanish tax case against Messi and his father. "However anything to do with an individual's tax affairs is solely a matter for them and their management," the statement said.
Juan José Martín, vice president of an association of FC Barcelona fans in Móstoles, just south of Madrid, said he hoped the case against Messi and his father would be quickly dismissed. He said Barcelona supporters in general value Messi's down-to-earth, modest demeanor.
"Messi is a person who, we can see, is close to the fans," Martín said.
hmm....many trolls on him