BARCELONA, Spain May 31 – The trial of Argentina star Lionel Messi in tax fraud charges opened Tuesday in Spain in his absence just days before Argentina’s first match in the Copa America tournament against Chile.
Messi, 28, and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, are accused of using a chain of fake companies in Belize and Uruguay to avoid paying taxes on 467 million Kenya Shillings of Messi’s income earned through the sale of his image rights from 2007-09.
They have been charged with three counts of tax fraud.
Dozens of journalists, from Spain and abroad were on hand at a Barcelona court for the start of the trial which is expected to last until Thursday when Messi and his father will take the stand.
Messi had planned to be in Barcelona for the start of the trial but a lower back injury he suffered during a friendly against Honduras last week prevented him from doing so, defence lawyer Javier Sanchez-Vera said at the start of the proceedings.
Spanish prosecutors are seeking a jail sentence of 22-and-a-half months for Messi and his father if they are found guilty, plus fines equivalent to the amount that was allegedly defrauded.
But any such sentence would likely be suspended as it is common in Spain for first offences carrying a sentence of less than two years.
The first day of the trial will be dedicated to preliminary legal questions and witness testimony.
– ‘Dad handled the cash’ –
The Barcelona striker and his defence team have argued that the player’s father handled his finances without reporting to him, and that the striker was not aware of any wrongdoing.
“My dad handled the cash,” Messi said in September 2013 when he was questioned by a judge investigating the case at a court in Gavia, a town on the outskirts of Barcelona where the footballer lives.
He reportedly told the judge at that hearing that he never looks at the contracts he signs.
“I signed things, but I never look at the contracts. I don’t know what I sign,” Messi said according to the El Periodico daily, which got access to his September 2013 statement to the judge.
According to the alleged statement published by the Barcelona daily, the judge showed him several sponsorship contracts that he signed, but he did not remember them.
“This is something that my dad manages. And I trust him. I devote myself to playing football,” he reportedly said.
“I do what he tells me to do.”
After winning a league and Cup double with Barcelona, the five-time World Player of the Year is due to join his Argentina teammates for the Copa America in the United States.
Argentina take on defending champions Chile in their first game of the tournament at Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium, the home of the San Francisco 49ers, in California on June 6.