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No jail for Lionel Messi despite tax fraud

Associated Press Associated Press 6/07/2016

A Barcelona court on Wednesday gave Lionel Messi and his father suspended 21-month prison sentences for tax fraud.

The court found the Barcelona star and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, guilty of three counts of defrauding the tax department to the tune of 4.1 million euros ($A6.1 million).

In Spain, sentences of less than two years for first offences are suspended, meaning neither man will go to jail.

The court also fined the world footballer of the year 2 million euros ($A3 million) and his father 1.5 million euros ($A2.25 million).

Spanish prosecutors requested a 22-month jail term for the pair.

During the trial last month, Messi and his father denied any wrongdoing. Both said the player was unaware of the tax issues that led to the fraud charges.

But the state prosecutor argued Messi and his father had failed to prove their innocence and were unable to show that the player did not have at least some knowledge of the corporate structures created to lower his tax burden in Spain.

Tax inspectors testified they found evidence that Messi's father used companies in countries such as Uruguay, Switzerland and Belize to reduce tax on the player's income from image rights. Jorge Messi said he was told by a legal adviser that the practice was legal.

The Messis have the option of appealing against the verdict to the Supreme Court in Madrid.

In 2014, the Messi family paid the tax agency 5 million euros ($A7.42 million) as a "correction payment" in the hope of avoiding having to go to trial.

However, prosecutors were adamant the trial should go ahead, saying Lionel was "the head of a criminal structure".

At the four-day trial which started on May 30, Jorge Messi took full responsibility for his son's financial affairs, while Lionel said: "I had complete confidence in my father. I did not know what I was signing".

According to Catalan newspaper Mundo Deportivo, Barcelona directors are "extremely angry" at the verdict against their star player since they consider that he knew nothing about the alleged tax haven concealment scheme.

However, club president Josep Maria Bartomeu declined to say anything about the case on Wednesday during the presentation to the media of Denis Suarez after he signed from Villarreal.

Messi is not the first Barcelona player to have problems with the Spanish tax agency. Defender Javier Mascherano was given a one-year suspended sentence in January for tax evasion.

Messi is Argentina's career-leading scorer with 55 goals in 113 international appearances. But he has lost three Copa America finals with Argentina (2007, 2015 and 2016) and announced his international retirement after last month's penalty shootout final loss to Chile.

With Barcelona, Messi has won four Champions League titles and three Club World Cup trophies. He also won eight Spanish league titles, scoring 453 goals in 531 games, including a league-record 312.

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