Barcelona's Lionel Messi in tax court: I played football and trusted my father
Barcelona star Lionel Messi denied having knowledge of the tax issues that led to fraud charges against him, saying on Thursday that he signed documents without reading them because he trusted his father and the advisers responsible for managing his finances.
Witnesses called to testify on the second day of his trial said that Messi had little knowledge of the corporate structures that authorities say were created to lower the player's tax burden in Spain. They said that although he signed documents, it was his father who was actually responsible for the player's businesses off the field.
Messi's lawyer had previously said that his strategy will be to "counterattack" in the Barcelona and Argentina forward's trial.
Messi and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, have been charged with three counts of tax fraud. They could be sentenced to nearly two years in prison if found guilty of defrauding Spain's tax authority of €4.1 million ($4.5 million) from 2007-09.
It is unlikely they will actually receive any jail time, although they could be fined and have to forfeit any possible tax benefits in the near future.
"I just played football," Messi told the judge on Thursday. "I signed the contracts because I trusted my dad and the lawyers and we had decided that they would take charge of those things."
Wearing a dark suit and tie, Messi sat alongside his father in front of the judge and listened to other testimony for nearly four hours before being called to testify in the third day of the trial.
Speaking for less than 15 minutes, Messi said he never suspected any wrongdoing when his father asked him to sign contracts or documents.
Messi's lawyers have tried to show that he was not familiar with the tax issues that led to fraud charges against him.
He said he didn't know that part of his income was going through companies created in countries such as Uruguay, Switzerland and Belize, which authorities alleged was done to lower the player's tax burden in Spain.
"The only thing I knew is that we signed deals with different sponsors and they paid for me to do advertisements, photos and things like that," Messi said. "But I didn't know how this money arrived or where it was going."
Messi's father had reiterated in his testimony that his son didn't know the details of his contracts or the structures created in other countries to handle his income from image rights.
"I didn't think it was necessary to inform him of everything," Messi's father said.
The Argentina striker said he did not know whether he had been part of an image-rights company called Jenbril that was formed in 2007 in Uruguay.
"I didn't know about it. I never asked my dad about these things. I signed the contract because I trusted my dad and because the lawyers said that we should do it this way."
He added that he never sat down with his lawyers so they could explain to him how they were handling his image rights, nor did he get any briefings about his financial obligations. He also denied sitting down with Angel Juarez, the head of the legal firm the family had retained.
"If I saw him twice in my life, that was a lot, I think I saw him once when there was a contract I was required to sign."
Because of the trial, the Barcelona player has missed part of Argentina's preparations for the Copa America Centenario, which starts on Friday in the United States. He is only expected to join his teammates in the U.S. after the trial ends, with their opener against tournament holders Chile on June 7 in Santa Clara.
However, it has been reported that he is doubtful for the Chile game due to a rib injury he picked up in a friendly against Honduras. Argentina's second game is against Panama on Friday, June 10.
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," Juarez, a partner at the law office that represented Messi at the time, testified. "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 that only Messi's father would review the document before it was submitted.
"Leo didn't see them," said Eva Blazquez, who also 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 by the defence said that some of the signatures on Messi's contracts appeared to be falsified, supporting the player's argument that he didn't 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 that 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 wouldn't 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 is expected to end on Friday, and the verdict and sentencing are expected next week.
Hundreds of journalists and a few onlookers were waiting in front of the Barcelona courthouse when Messi and his father arrived. Authorities had prepared a special operation to control the crowd and protect the player.
Some people showed their support to Argentina star, while a few yelled words against him, including asking him to "give the money back" and telling him to "go play in Panama."
Messi was also being investigated by Spanish tax authorities after his name was among those released in the probe of international offshore accounts sparked by a leak of documents known as the Panama Papers, although he has not been charged in relation to those revelations.
When the player left the courthouse, many fans applauded.
Messi is the latest high-profile player to have to deal with Spain's tough tax system. Neymar, Javier Mascherano, Adriano and Xabi Alonso also were targeted by authorities recently.
Mascherano, Messi's teammate with Argentina and Barcelona, earlier this year was handed a suspended one-year prison sentence for not paying nearly €1.5 million ($1.6 million) in taxes for 2011-12.
Information from The Associated Press and ESPN FC's Dermot Corrigan in Madrid was used in this report.