A couple of weeks ago, Lionel Messi experienced heartbreak on the soccer pitch, as his Argentina side suffered an agonizing loss to Germany in the World Cup final. Today he suffered a different setback, one that could make life unpleasant for him off the field.
A judge in Spain ordered a tax fraud case to continue against Messi, overruling a prosecutor’s request to drop it. The case stems from tax shelters alleged to have been set up through Messi’s father, Jorge Horacio Messi. The father made a payment to the Spanish government in August 2013 to cover unpaid taxes, plus interest, but the judge wants a further investigation into what Lionel Messi knew about possible fraud.
From the Associated Press:
A court statement said there was “sufficient evidence” to believe the Barcelona and Argentina star “could have known and consented” to the creation of a fictitious corporate structure to avoid paying taxes on income from his image rights. …
Monday’s statement said it was not necessary for Messi “to have full knowledge of all accounting or corporate transactions or the exact amount of the fraud” for him to have had a clear idea of an intention to defraud. …
Should the judge, backed by a new decision from tax and prosecution authorities, rule the case against Messi must go ahead with an indictment, the Barcelona star would have to appear in court to be questioned.
Image rights are commonly used by soccer clubs in Europe to avoid paying players directly, providing both parties opportunities to reduce their respective tax burdens. From a Bloomberg report:
Through image-rights companies, teams or corporate sponsors pay players for using their names and pictures in promotions and advertisements and on products such as sneakers and soft drinks. Players, who own the image-rights companies, can borrow or invest the money, or take it as a dividend at a lower tax rate than if it were paid as salary. Much of the tax avoidance in soccer, including Messi’s, involves these companies, which are often established in tax havens.
According to Forbes magazine, Messi was the fourth-most highly compensated athlete in the world over the past year, behind boxer Floyd Mayweather, fellow soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo and LeBron James.
As Spain struggles with a lagging economy and high unemployment, it has sought to tap into the exploding profits generated by its soccer clubs, some of whom, such as Messi’s Barcelona, are among the world’s most popular. The judge’s decision to continue this case may signal an intention to make an example out of the four-time world player of the year.