Stuck on tax clouds

The sporting world was shocked on Wednesday by the news that four-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi is being pursued by the Spanish tax authorities for an alleged fraud worth over four million euros ($5 million). Messi is rightfully the world’s most lauded and admired footballer as, on the pitch, he has achieved feats barely plausible in the modern game, such as his 91-goal haul in the calendar year of 2012 that overhauled German Gerd Mueller’s 40-year-old European record.

However, in contrast to many of his contemporaries, it is his camera-shy, humble attitude away from the pitch that has allowed many to warm to him. And that image is precisely why Wednesday’s news came as such a surprise. Messi, who is accused along with his father Jorge Horacio, strongly denied the allegations via his Facebook page, saying that he had not even been informed by the tax authorities of the complaint.

“We have just known through the media about the claim filed by the Spanish tax authorities. We are surprised about those news, because we have never committed any infringement,” he said. Ironically, given his squeaky clean image, it appears to be how he has handled money earned from image rights that the authorities are challenging. They claim that the player and his father used tax havens in Belize and Uruguay to avoid paying tax on image rights from a number of the player’s huge endorsement deals.

The pair are accused of defrauding the state of taxes related to that income in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009, the year the Argentine won the first of his four Ballons d’Or. Since that time Messi’s exceptional performances on the field have seen his value as a marketable commodity soar. He scored in both the Champions League finals of 2009 and 2011 as Barca overcame Manchester United to claim their third and fourth European crowns respectively.

Those feats allied to the winning of his fourth Ballon d’Or in January saw him move up one place in this year’s Forbes list of highest-paid athletes to 10th with an annual income of $21 million from endorsements alone.

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