Lionel Messi, Barcelona’s five-times soccer World Player of the Year, went on trial Tuesday along with his father on accusations of defrauding the Spanish state of millions of euros (dollars).
The trial of Argentina star opened in his absence just days before Argentina’s first match in the Copa America tournament against Chile.
Messi and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, are accused of using a chain of fake companies in Belize and Uruguay to avoid paying taxes on 4.16 million euros ($4.7 million) of Messi’s income earned through the sale of his image rights from 2007-09.
The income related to Messi’s image rights, including contracts with Banco Sabadell, Danone, Adidas, Pepsi-Cola, Procter and Gamble, and the Kuwait Food Company.
The trial is expected to last for three days, with Messi appearing in court on Thursday.
The Barca star and his father denied all knowledge of tax evasion. The player’s father agreed. “He has nothing to do [with these issues], he only plays football,” Jorge Horacio Messi said.
Messi’s lawyers had argued that the player had “never devoted a minute of his life to reading, studying or analyzing” the contracts.
But the high court in Barcelona ruled in June 2015 that the football star should not be granted immunity for not knowing what was happening with his finances, which were being managed in part by his father.
Messi and his father made a voluntary €5m (£3.8m, $5.6m) “corrective payment” – equal to the alleged unpaid tax plus interest – in August 2013.
According to the alleged statement published by the Barcelona daily, the judge showed him several sponsorship contracts that he signed, but he did not remember them.
“This is something that my dad manages. And I trust him. I devote myself to playing football,” he reportedly said.
“I do what he tells me to.”
Spanish prosecutors are seeking a jail sentence of 22-and-a-half months for Messi and his father if they are found guilty, plus fines equivalent to the amount that was allegedly defrauded.
But any such sentence would likely be suspended as is common in Spain for first offences carrying a sentence of less than two years.
Questions over the player’s finances increased after Messi and his father were among those named in April in reports by international media who received a vast trove of data and documents leaked from a law firm based in Panama.
Spanish newspaper El Confidential revealed that the two men opened a company in Panama in June 2013, just after the allegations of tax fraud broke, to continue to hide income earned from image rights from Spanish tax authorities.
The Messi family acknowledged the existence of the company but they said it was “totally inactive” and never had any funds. The scandal appears not to have dented the popularity of the footballer whom Forbes magazine says was the world’s fourth highest paid athlete last year.