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Lionel Messi

Messi’s ex-advisors absolve him in tax fraud trial

Barcelona (AFP) – Lionel Messi’s former tax advisors came out in support of the football star Wednesday as his trial for alleged fraud continued in Barcelona, saying he never handled his wealth management.

Messi, 28, and his father Jorge Horacio Messi are accused of using fake companies in Belize and Uruguay to avoid paying taxes on 4.16 million euros ($4.6 million) of his income earned through the sale of his image rights from 2007-09.

The trial kicked off in Barcelona on Tuesday, and the five-time World Player of the Year himself will take the stand on Thursday before joining his Argentina teammates for the Copa America in the United States.

He “didn’t take any decisions and I didn’t see anyone consulting him for anything,” said Angel Juarez, one of the partners at law firm Juarez Veciana which managed Messi’s tax affairs at the time.

“I don’t know if any of my correspondence has been included in the case, but they will see that Lionel Messi does not appear in any of it,” added Inigo de Loyola, another partner and Juarez’s brother.

Juarez was responsible for creating several companies in Uruguay, then considered a tax haven.

Messi’s father had hired the law firm as he had ongoing disputes with his then advisor who was managing the footballer’s image rights through a company based in Belize — and wanted him out.

The Barcelona firm decided to create a mirror structure in Uruguay.

Jenbril was 100 percent owned by Messi and he poured his image rights earnings in there, and Frosyl was where his father deposited his commissions as the player’s agent.

These companies are the main focus of the investigation.

– ‘Maximum value’ –

Juarez acknowledged in court that it was all about getting “maximum value” out of Messi’s earnings from endorsement deals that included Banco Sabadell, Danone, Adidas, Pepsi-Cola, Procter & Gamble and the Kuwait Food Company.

“Uruguay was a place where this income was not taxable,” he said.

But he added that the structure was legal and that he had explained all this to Messi’s father.

Both partners, who stopped working for Messi shortly after the investigation started, were however unable to explain why the player’s firm in Uruguay failed to appear in his wealth tax declaration.

The Barcelona forward and his defence team have long argued that the player’s father handled his finances without reporting to him, and that the striker was not aware of any wrongdoing.

Both Messi and his father have been charged with three counts of tax fraud.

Spanish prosecutors are seeking a jail sentence of 22-and-a-half months for them if they are found guilty, plus fines equivalent to the amount that was allegedly defrauded.

But any such sentence would likely be suspended as is common in Spain for first offences carrying a sentence of less than two years.

After his court appearance, Messi will jet off to the United States, where Argentina take on Copa America defending champions Chile in their first game of the tournament in California on Monday.

Both Barcelona and the Argentine Football Association have supported the player, who is loudly cheered whenever he appears on the pitch at the Spanish club’s Camp Nou stadium.

Barcelona managers have even insinuated that there is a conspiracy to tar the image of their star player, who has been key to the club’s success on the pitch in recent years.

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