Barcelona’s current and ex-presidents set aside their differences and yesterday defended Lionel Messi against allegations of tax fraud in a case that experts say could carry a prison sentence for the Argentina star.
A Spanish state prosecutor filed a complaint on Wednesday alleging that Messi and his father Jorge avoided paying €4 million (£3.4m) in back taxes on earnings from image rights during 2006-2009 by using illegal overseas tax havens.
Joan Laporta, who was club president during the period covered by the complaint, said he was “convinced that neither Leo nor his father has committed any infraction”.
Laporta told Cope radio: “The situation could be that they don’t have any responsibility in these events. There can be third parties who are responsible.
“I know them and they have always wanted to act within the law, and that’s how they acted with the club, at least when I was president.”
Laporta said that Messi and his family lacked the financial know-how necessary to have set up the network of shell companies and tax havens in countries including Belize and Uruguay described in the prosecutor’s complaint. “They were always careful, let’s say even wary, when faced with these situations that were over their heads because they didn’t have the knowledge of a lawyer or a tax expert, and so they went out and got advisers,” he said.
Messi has denied any wrongdoing and his lawyers issued a statement yesterday saying that he “has always punctually attended to his fiscal obligations”.
Current Barça president Sandro Rosell later said the club has no “doubts about [Messi’s] innocence”, making for a rare moment of alignment with Laporta following the bitter feud the two former colleagues have waged since Rosell left Laporta’s board in 2005. “I have spoken with his family, and they are calm and we as a club are calm as well,” said Rosell. “We are giving him all the support we can because we don’t have any doubts about his innocence.”
The case was submitted at the court in Gava, near the Mediterranean coastal town where Messi lives. A judge at the court must accept the prosecutor’s complaint before charges can be brought against Messi and his father. If found guilty and barring an out-of-court deal with the tax office, Messi and his father could face two to six years in jail, according to Professor Sandalio Gomez, a sports finance analyst at the IESE Business School.
Messi, who is rated by Forbes as the world’s tenth highest-paid athlete, reportedly earned £26.3m to June this year; £12.9m coming from his club salary and £13.4m in endorsements.