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Lionel Messi, father get 21-month prison term in tax case; will avoid jail

A Barcelona court has found Barcelona forward Lionel Messi, and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, guilty of three counts of tax fraud and has sentenced them to 21 months in prison -- although neither is likely to serve any jail time.

In a statement, the court also said that the sentence can be appealed through the Spanish supreme court. Under Spanish law, a tax prison sentence under two years can be served under probation, meaning Messi and his father are very unlikely to go to jail.

The court has also ordered Messi to pay a fine of about €2 million ($2.2 million), while his father was dealt a €1.5m fine for the tax evasion.

The court had been hearing a case brought by prosecutors who maintain that Messi and his father, Jorge, used tax havens in Belize and Uruguay as well as shell companies in the U.K. and Switzerland to avoid paying taxes totalling €4.1m on earnings from image rights from 2007 to 2009.

Barcelona on Wednesday issued a statement in support of their star forward, saying that they feel Messi is not criminally responsible for the tax fraud.

"FC Barcelona gives all its support to Leo Messi and his father with relation to the sentence for tax evasion handed out by the Provincial Court in Barcelona today," the statement read. "The Club, in agreement with the Government prosecution service, considers that the player, who has corrected his position with the Spanish Tax Office, is in no way criminally responsible with regards to the facts underlined in this case.

"FC Barcelona continues to be at the disposal of Leo Messi and his family to support him in whatever action he decides to take in defence of his honesty and his legal interests."

The prosecutors had called for jail sentences for both Messis, and the court decided to hand out such a punishment, although both of them denied any willful wrongdoing. Lionel Messi admitted in court last month that he signed many documents without reading their contents and that he visited a notary's office to go through with setting up a company to handle his finances without understanding what was going on.

In 2013, the Barcelona player was set to avoid facing any charges, as the Spanish revenue service initially accepted that he had no knowledge of any wrongdoing and instead pressed all charges against his father.

However, in October 2014 the state prosecutor decided to continue with the charges, and during June's court case its representative, Mario Maza, said that the Argentina captain's claims of not understanding how the system worked were not acceptable, as even children knew that taxes had to be paid in full.

When news of the investigation first broke in the summer of 2013, the Messis paid over €5m in arrears and extra charges. They are also believed to have paid €10m in taxes due on the image-rights income for 2010 and 2011.

In February, Messi's teammate Javier Mascherano was given a one-year prison sentence for not properly paying his taxes. The sentence was deferred for two years after his legal team rejected the option to pay a new €280,000 ($312,000) fine, which it considered excessive.

According to Forbes magazine, Messi earns a total of $81.4 million a year, making him No. 2 in their list of world's highest-paid athletes for 2016. 

Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan

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