Lionel Messi appears in tax-fraud trial in Spain

Barcelona and Argentina footballer faces charges which, if found true, could see him jailed for nearly two years.

    Lionel Messi appears in tax-fraud trial in Spain
    Spain's tax agency is pushing for heavy fines and prison sentences [Reuters]

    Argentina football star Lionel Messi has said 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.

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    The Barcelona forward appeared in court in Barcelona on Thursday alongside his father, Jorge Horacio, to testify against charges of tax evasion.

    "I was playing football. I had no idea about anything," the 28-year-old told the court.

    "I trusted my dad and my lawyers," he added.

    Barcelona star Lionel Messi to stand trial for tax fraud

    The five-time World Player of the Year and his father face allegations of using a chain of fake companies in Belize and Uruguay to avoid paying taxes on $4.6m of the footballer's income earned through the sale of his image rights from 2007-09.

    They could face jail terms of up to 22 months if found guilty - although it is customary in Spain that offenders of non-violent crimes with a sentence of under two years do not serve time in jail.

    "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.

    'Chinese to me'

    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.

    They made a voluntary payment of $5.6m - 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.

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    The player's former tax advisors 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 advisors) to look after our assets ... and they told us this was the best way."

    'Go play in Panama'

    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 as he arrived for the hearing.

    Most applauded but some jeered and criticised the footballer.

    "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 the AFP news agency.

    "Thief!," yelled out one onlooker. "Go play in Panama," cried out another.

    Messi and his father will not attend the fourth and final day of the trial on Friday when lawyers will make their closing arguments.

    No date was set for when the court will issue its ruling.

    Because of the trial, Messi has missed part of Argentina's preparations for the Copa America, which starts on Friday in the US.

    Messi is the latest prominent player to have to deal with Spain's tough tax system. Neymar, Javier Mascherano, Adriano and Xabi Alonso also were targeted by authorities recently.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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