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Lionel Messi 'unaware of tax issues'

Published 01/06/2016

Lionel Messi's lawyer Enrique Bacigalupo, right, leaves court in Barcelona (AP)
Lionel Messi's lawyer Enrique Bacigalupo, right, leaves court in Barcelona (AP)

Lionel Messi's lawyers have tried to show the court that the Barcelona footballer was not familiar with the tax issues that led to fraud charges against him.

Witnesses called to give evidence on the second day of his trial say the Argentina forward had little knowledge of the corporate structures that authorities say were created to lower the player's tax burden in Spain.

They say that although Messi signed documents, it was his father who was actually responsible for the player's businesses off the field.

Messi and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, have been charged with three counts of tax fraud and could be sentenced to nearly two years in prison if found guilty of defrauding Spain's tax office of 4.1 million euro (£3.1 million) from 2007-09.

It is unlikely they will face any jail time, although they could be fined and have to forfeit any possible tax benefits in the near future.

Messi is scheduled to give evidence on Thursday, when authorities are preparing a special operation to control the many journalists, fans and onlookers expected to show up at the Barcelona court. He did not have to be in the courtroom on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Because of the trial, the Barcelona player has missed part of Argentina's preparations for the Copa America, which starts on Saturday in the United States. He is only expected to join his teammates in the US after the trial ends.

The defence's case is centred on Messi's alleged lack of knowledge of his father's transactions involving contracts and tax issues.

"The player wasn't involved in any of the decisions," said Angel Juarez, a partner at the law office that represented Messi at the time. "He would show up only to sign the documents."

The person responsible for handling the player's tax declarations was also brought to the witness stand and said only Messi's father would review the document before it was turned in.

"Leo didn't see them," said Eva Blazquez, who said she prepared the declaration with information obtained from Messi's father. "The final supervision was done by the client, in this case, Jorge Messi."

An expert called up by the defence said some of the signatures on Messi's contracts appeared to be falsified, adding to the thesis that the player did not closely take part in off-the-field dealings.

Spanish prosecutors said that even though Messi was mostly unfamiliar with tax issues, there was enough evidence to believe he could have known and consented to the fictitious structure created to avoid paying taxes on income from his image rights.

Juarez said that Messi's father was aware that his son would not have to pay taxes if his image rights went through a company based in Uruguay, but claimed that such a practice was legal.

The trial was interrupted for nearly an hour because of problems with the audio being retransmitted to the hundreds of journalists covering the case. It restarted after it was moved to another audience room.

The trial is expected to finish on Friday, and the verdict and sentencing should come next week.

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