Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi has testified at his tax-fraud trial, saying that he had not knowingly done anything wrong. The Argentine striker could face nearly two years in jail if found guilty.
The 28-year-old Messi, who spoke for less than 15 minutes in the Barcelona court on Thursday, said he had no knowledge of the alleged wrongdoing, which led the Spanish authorities to charge both him and his father with three counts of fraud.
“I don’t know anything,” Messi said. “I only worried about playing football.”
The five time winner of the FIFA Ballon d’Or also said that he had never questioned the actions of his father and agent, Jorge Horacio Messi, or the other advisers who handle his affairs.
“I signed what he told me to sign because I trusted my father,” Messi said. “I trusted my father, and the lawyers said that I could (sign the documents).”
Specifically, Messi and his father stand accused of using a number of fake companies in Belize and Uruguay to avoid paying taxes on 4.16 million euros ($4.6 million) of income earned through the sale of his image rights between 2007 and 2009.
The income that was allegedly hidden included endorsement deals with Banco Sabadell, Danone, Adidas, Pepsi-Cola, Procter & Gamble and the Kuwait Food Company.
“All I knew was that we signed agreements with certain sponsors for ‘X’ amount of money and that I had to do advertisements, photos and those things but about the money and where it went I knew nothing,” Messi said.
Earlier, his father also told the court that his son knew note of the details about the contracts or the structures set up abroad to deal with the revenue from his image rights.
“I didn’t think it was necessary to inform him of everything,” Jorge Horacio Messi said.
Possible suspended sentences
Spanish prosecutors have called for jail sentence of 22-and-a-half months for both men, plus fines equivalent to the amount that was allegedly defrauded. However, it is thought that if they are found guilty, they would both receive suspended sentences, as is common in Spain for first offences carrying sentences of less than two years.
This could also be mitigated by the fact that Messi and his father made a voluntary payment of five million euros – the equivalent to the amount of alleged unpaid taxes plus interest.
The trial is expected to wrap up on Friday, with a verdict and sentencing to come as soon as next week.
Messi’s name also came up in the “Panama Papers,” which were leaked earlier this year. He has not been charged over those allegations.
After his court appearance, Messi was to fly to the United States where Argentina are preparing for their first game of the Copa America, against Chile on Monday.
pfd/dv (AP, dpa, AFP)