Lionel Messi's father says he and his son are relaxed about facing tax fraud charges in Spain, but has hit out at a 'cruel, false and hateful' media campaign against someone who pays more than €10 million in taxes each year.
Reports emerged in mid-June that the Spanish authorities were taking a case against the Barcelona player and his father, Jorge, for over €4 million in unpaid taxes, with a judge in Catalonia then setting a hearing for September 17, during the first week of 2013-14 Champions League group stage fixtures.
El Pais have reported that state prosecutor Raquel Amado alleges that from 2006 to 2009 Messi Jnr's 'tax planners' moved revenues pertaining to the player's image rights first through companies in tax havens Uruguay and Belize, then through others in the UK and Switzerland, and that the Argentina international himself knew about and consented to this operation, which was designed to defraud the Spanish taxman.
Messi Snr, though, told Spanish radio station COPE that neither he nor his son were worried by the developments as they had always paid all they owed, and this amount typically ran into eight figures.
"We are fine and very relaxed because we have never left off paying anything to the tax authorities," he said. "That there is a difference of opinion between them and our own tax accountants is normal because that always happens with those who pay big amounts to the taxman. I can assure you that what is paid each year has two figures and then six zeros behind."
The revelation of the inquiry was huge news in Spain, with some reports claiming that the four-time Ballon d'Or winner could face a spell in prison, and speculation that further charges could also be brought.
Messi Snr professed himself to be very unhappy with coverage he saw as most unfair.
"We know that there will be an agreement, but it annoys us that some media have made a campaign including false accusations and generating expressions of hate," he said. "It is very cruel, but we will know what to do when this is cleared up."
Messi Jnr's lawyer, Cristobal Martell, issued a statement to AS saying that they were cooperating fully with the authorities, while maintaining that their client was innocent of the charges and hoping it would all be cleared up as quickly as possible and with the minimum of media fuss.
"We respect and accept the judicial decision, and we put ourselves at the disposition of the court to help to resolve this and establish the truth," the statement read. "We show our confidence in being able to clear up the disparity of criteria and we are sorry that some have wanted to put in doubt the honourability of our client, who scrupulously complies with the Spanish legislation.
"We declare that our client will pay the amounts which are finally determined, but we are convinced that our client has already paid all that he legally has to. We believe firmly in the innocence of our client. We ask that the court be let do its work. We trust that the judicial investigation can resolve in the minimum time possible this question which has left our client in an indefensible high-profile situation which we are deeply sorry for."
Messi is not the first famous sportsman to have faced a similar tax investigation in Spain in recent years, where it is highly unusual for anyone to go to prison for unpaid taxes.
Footballers including Luis Figo and Davor Suker have been ordered to make payments including penalties, while tennis stars Rafael Nadal and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario have also reached agreements with the authorities.