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Jun 20, 2013

Lionel Messi summoned to court

Barcelona star Lionel Messi will have to face a Spanish court to defend himself against allegations of tax fraud.

BARCELONA, Spain -- Lionel Messi and his father were ordered by a Spanish court on Thursday to appear for questioning in September as part of an investigation into tax fraud allegations.

A court in the Mediterranean coastal town of Gava near Barcelona accepted a state prosecutor's complaint alleging that Messi and father Jorge defrauded the Spanish tax office of 4 million euros ($5.3 million).

The Barcelona and Argentina star and his father will appear before judge Anju Deb Rani in Gava on Sept. 17. That will form part of an investigation to determine whether there exist grounds to charge them with tax evasion.

If charged and found guilty, Messi and his father could face a fine amounting to 150 percent of the concealed earnings and 2-6 years in prison, although an out-of-court deal is another possible outcome.

Court officials told The Associated Press that both Messi and his father will have to appear in person for the session that will be closed to the public.

The timing of the court appearance could coincide with Barcelona's opening game in the Champions League, set to be played either on Sept. 17 or 18.

The court accepted the complaint lodged by prosecutor Raquel Amada on June 12 accusing the pair of not paying the correct taxes from revenue earned from image rights on Messi's income tax returns from the years 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Messi has denied wrongdoing. He has received public backing from Barcelona club president Sandro Rosell and former president Joan Laporta, who was in charge during the years of the alleged fraud.

The 25-year-old Messi is widely considered the best player of his generation and one of the best in history after winning an unprecedented four straight FIFA world player of the year awards.

Messi, who is rated by Forbes as the world's 10th highest-paid athlete, reportedly earned $41.3 million to June this year; with $20.3 coming from his club salary and $21 million in endorsements.

The court accepted the complaint lodged by prosecutor Raquel Amada on June 12 accusing the pair of not paying the correct taxes from revenue earned from image rights on Messi's income tax returns from the years 2007, 2008 and 2009.

If found guilty and barring an out-of-court deal with the tax office, Messi and his father could face 2-6 years in jail, according to Professor Sandalio Gomez, a sports finance analyst at the IESE Business School.

In the complaint, state prosecutor Raquel Amado alleges that from 2006-09 Messi "obtained significant revenue derived from the transfer to third parties of his image rights, income which should have been taxed."

Gomez told the Associated Press that the prosecutor's complaint appeared to be strong, while noting that hiring or establishing a company -- even overseas -- to manage players' image rights was legal as long as they met their tax burdens in Spain.

"(The complaint) is well argued," he said, adding that it reminded him of the investigation of Inaki Urdangarin, the son-in-law of Spain's King Juan Carlos who is under investigation for possible tax fraud and money laundering.

Messi is not the first athlete to be investigated in Spain for taxes.

Last year former Portugal star Luis Figo was forced to pay 2.45 million euros in income tax pertaining to image rights from 1997-99 while playing for Barcelona. In 2009, former top-ranked women's player Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario had to pay millions in back taxes.

The 25-year-old Messi is widely considered the best player of his generation and one of the best in history after winning an unprecedented four straight FIFA world player of the year awards. He has scored 133 goals for Barcelona over the last two seasons and helped it win its fourth Spanish league title in five seasons this year.

Messi, who is rated by Forbes as the world's 10th highest-paid athlete, reportedly earned $41.3 million to June this year; with $20.3 coming from his club salary and $21 million in endorsements.

Messi leads an apparently quiet life focused on his family -- he became a father last year -- and has never been linked to any unsavory episodes, making him a universally liked figure in Spain and abroad.

Spain has been cracking down on tax evasion as it fights to repair the country's public finances amid recession and the collapse of its once-booming real estate sector.

The country has been further hurt by a series of corruption and financial fraud cases which until now had been limited to the worlds of business and politics.

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