When Leo Messi filed his tax returns for 2007 and 2009 in Spain he made claims for tax repayments of 808.05 and 7,210.86 euros respectively. A situation that was “noteworthy” given his “substantial earnings” at the time, noted the judges who on Wednesday handed him a 21 month jail sentence for tax fraud. These were repayments that might make somebody who would later claim to have no idea of his own affairs at least pay a little attention.
Messi defrauded the Spanish taxman of 4,186,003.12 euros
And yet even this surprising claim for a refund wasn’t apparently enough to prod Barcelona star Messi into finding out anything about his tax situation. Or about the management of his image rights, which, as the three judges, Navaro, Otero and Arma, held, were organised through an opaque series of companies designed to prevent the Spanish tax authorities finding out about the footballer’s multi-million euro earnings from his sponsorship deals.
In total Messi has been found to have defrauded the Spanish taxman, and by extension Spanish society, of 4,186,003.12 euros in the years 2007, 2008 and 2009. Messi’s entire defence was that he knew nothing. His father took care of his affairs. He signed whatever was put in front of him and simply played football.
Messi deliberately ignored his own affairs
In their examination of the evidence the judges found little evidence to the contrary, reaching the conclusion that Messi quite deliberately refused to pay any attention to any of these matters, despite there being good reason for him to suspect that the situation in respect of his image rights made little sense.
One example: Messi’s image rights were sold for 50,000 dollars to a company at a time when his brand was on the rise (he had already made his league debut for Barcelona) and he was negotiating a single deal with Nike worth far more on its own than those 50,000 dollars. But despite the clear illogicality of selling the image rights for such a ridiculously small sum Messi simply ignored these facts. He also apparently never thought to wonder why some of the companies involved in his image rights structure were in Uruguay and Belize, countries where he had no ties, yet had to fly to on occasion to sign contracts because of the decision to locate the companies there.
And yet if Messi had wanted information about his affairs it was, as the judges say, easily and quickly within his reach, from trustworthy sources. But the player continued to turn a blind eye.
As the judges conclude, where tax has been fraudulently evaded and the taxpayer acts with such gross indifference, having opportunities to understand how their affairs were being managed, yet without taking advantage of those opportunities, there is no other conclusion than that the taxpayer acted with what is equivalent to criminal intent.
Messi... an adult, with all the responsibility that entails
Who can imagine what it’s like being Leo Messi? His incredible skill with a football brought him to Spain, thousands of miles from home, where the game has been his whole life. He’s feted wherever he goes, loved by millions, with seemingly one over-riding desire: to play football.
It’s likely Messi has never opened a bank account, has never had to think about getting a mortgage. Maybe very little of what most would call the real world impinges on his existence. Maybe the thought of dealing with numbers rather than defenders fills him with dread.
But there is one telling phrase in the judgement convicting Messi: “Leo Messi… of legal age”. He’s an adult. And being an adult brings responsibility. It means being part of the society in which you live.
The conviction for tax fraud, which is subject to appeal, and which Messi will appeal, makes it clear that being a very rich footballer does not put an individual in a different class of people. The judges made it clear that it is no excuse to claim that the sum total of a person’s knowledge is “football”. Every adult has obligations to the society they live in. Everyone. No matter how much they earn, or how many fans they have.
Paying tax is one of the most civilised things humans do: contributing together for the betterment of society. Nobody, no matter how rich, powerful or adulated, is free of their obligation to be aware of their duty to contribute.
As the judges stressed, Messi’s lack of knowledge of the tax law didn’t exempt him from understanding how disproportionate it was to receive a tax refund despite how much he was earning. An adult cannot delegate everything to others; there is no provision in the laws for a man-child footballer who point blank refuses to take responsibility for anything beyond his game.
Maybe throughout his life nobody has ever expected Messi to take responsibility for anything other than his performance on the pitch. And remarkable as it may seem to us normal human beings, maybe he’s never realized that as an adult he has such responsibilities, despite now being a parent himself. If that’s the case, that’s likely a failing of his parents, his advisers and his club (who have stood by him after today's judgement). The sad thing is that, whoever is to blame, Messi will now likely go down in history not only as possibly the greatest footballer ever to have lived, but also as a convicted tax fraudster.