Spain Files Tax-Fraud Case Against Soccer Star Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi H

Argentine striker says he learned of allegations through the media and proclaims innocence on his Facebook page, scoring more than 56,000 "likes."

MADRID -- Spanish tax authorities have accused soccer star Lionel Messi and his father of tax fraud during a four-year period, amounting to more than €4 million ($5.3 million), but the Argentine striker denied the charge on his Facebook page, scoring 56,134 "likes."

Messi, a four-time winner of FIFA's Golden Ball as world player of the year who is ranked among the world's 10 highest-paid athletes according to Forbes magazine, is accused of using fiscal paradises in Belize and Uruguay to hide about €10.1 million ($13.4 million) earned from advertising campaigns.

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From 2006-2009, Messi failed to report earnings from commercial use of his image by Spanish telecom Telefonica, yogurt maker Danone, video game company Konami, bank Banco Sabadell, soccer team FC Barcelona, airline Air Europa, adidas and Pepsi, prosecutors claim.

According to tax authorities, the scheme to hide the earnings was put in place by the player's father, Jorge Messi, when his son -- now 25 -- was a minor.

Messi is accused of simulating that he ceded image rights to companies that were "purely instrumental" and not declaring the income, apart from the €15 million ($20 million) FC Barcelona pays him annually.

Tax authorities said they investigated Messi because of "founded expectation about his high economic present and future worth."

"We have just known through the media about the claim filed by the Spanish tax authorities. We are surprised about this news because we have never committed any infringement," Messi said on his Facebook page. "We have always fulfilled all our tax obligations, following the advice of our tax consultants who will take care of clarifying this situation."

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Messi is not the first highly paid Spain-based athlete to come under tax scrutiny. Tennis champion Rafael Nadal, retired Portuguese soccer star Luis Figo, former tennis ace Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Cameroonian soccer player Samuel Eto'o also have had run-ins with the country's tax cops. In the case of Nadal, tax authorities forced him to change his fiscal residence from Spain's Basque region, even though he reportedly had paid €20 million ($26.6 million) in taxes while his company was based there. Nadal denied wrongdoing but admitted to being "poorly advised" and changed his fiscal residence.

Former world player of the year Figo was forced to pay about €2.4 million ($3.2 million) to the Spanish government last year after he lost an appeal against a 2008 demand that claimed income tax due from 1997 to 1999 relating to image rights when he was a player. Even so, experts said there was an element of grandstanding in the charge.

Financially strapped Spain recently tightened its tax laws, and attacking the much-loved Messi sends a strong statement to others contemplating how to get around them.