(Bloomberg) Lionel Messi, the record five-time world soccer player of the year, appeared in a court in Barcelona Thursday as he seeks to defend himself in 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 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 at court shortly after 10 a.m. local time in a black SUV accompanied by a security team.
Messi avoided the media gathering outside Barcelona’s Justice Palace, rushing through the entrance’s steps with his father behind him. The two sat in court side by side in silence as a team of four tax inspectors laid out their case for more than two hours.
The trial comes as global scrutiny mounts into how the rich manage their income, with governments looking at information released in leaked legal documents dubbed the “Panama Papers.” Messi, who was part of the Argentina team that finished 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 didn’t 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 28-year-old player and his father evaded 4.2 million euros ($4.7 million) in taxes over three years on endorsement payments from Adidas AG, PepsiCo Inc., Procter & Gamble Co. and other companies.
The government is pursuing the case after the Messis paid 5 million euros, the amount prosecutors say they evaded, plus interest. According to prosecutors, Jorge Messi oversaw the use of companies in Belize, the U.K., 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 doesn’t affect the potential existence of crimes. He also dismissed Messi’s argument that he wasn’t involved in money management decisions.
Whether he serves the prison sentence state lawyers are demanding will be up to the judge. Under Spanish law, individuals can avoid serving jail time for prison sentence under two years if they have no criminal record and have sought to make amends for their offense.
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